Genius Products // 2005 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // September 22nd, 2006
One nation under fire.
American Gun offers a macroscopic view of post-9/11 and post-Columbine American life for a wide variety of individuals whose lives are affected -- directly or indirectly -- by the proliferation of gun violence in America. With such a complex and multi-faceted subject matter, one could assume that no one film is adequately prepared to tackle the issue effectively -- and you would be correct.
Three years after the disastrous school shooting at Ridgeline High School in Ellisburgh, Oregon, Janet, a single mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and her only remaining son David (Chris Marquette) try to put the pieces of their life back together. Her other son was responsible for the death of numerous students in a Columbine-type massacre that still resonates with resentment and animosity throughout the community. While Janet struggles to hold down a job and keep her remaining son enrolled in private school, David tries to adjust to life as the brother of a murderer. Meanwhile, a cop who was first to arrive on the scene at Ridgeline (Tony Goldwyn) is forced to re-evaluate his own demons after a news program slanders him.
Mary Anne (Linda Cardellini) is a young college student in Charlottesville, Va., working a part-time job in her uncle's family-owned gun shop. Her uncle (Donald Sutherland) worries about Mary Anne's increased alienation and reclusive behavior. Meanwhile, Carter (Forest Whitaker), a principal at an inner-city school in Chicago, is struggling to keep his school from descending into an urban crime spree. The children keep trying to bring handguns into the school, and his obsession with his job begins to affect his family life at home.
As you watch American Gun and see events play out for its numerous characters, you cannot help get a creeping sensation down the back of your neck, an ominous sense of foreboding. Things start off stressed for these characters and indeed only get worse from there. For this cross-section of Americans, their lives already adversely affected by guns, one realizes fairly quickly that nothing good is going to happen to them from here on out.
The narrative runs free from subject to subject, with little connecting each dramatic narrative to one another save for a general negative impact on their lives based on fear of gun violence, giving American Gun a relaxed narrative style, free to wander and develop tiny nuanced storylines. Between Oregon, Virginia, and Illinois, the narrative covers the stories of individuals who will have no cause to ever meet, but whose lives are still metaphysically intertwined by an ideology of gun violence.
The debut film of writer/director Aric Avelino, American Gun is a surprisingly forceful movie for a first-time director, assembling a top-rate cast of seasoned veteran actors and Academy Award winners. Avelino has a talent for crafting natural, powerful dialogue between characters full of overlapping conversations with believable and authentic emotion, producing exceptional acting performance from all involved, Marcia Gay Harden and Forest Whitaker in particular. Smartly edited, the film makes extensive use of French New Wave-style cuts and overlapping dialogue sequences to assemble its narrative arcs effectively while never disorienting the audience.
Unfortunately, each storyline seems at odds with each other in terms of its content; gun violence has a negative effect on Janet and her remaining son, but Mary Anne and her uncle bond over working hours in the family gun shop. The film never suggests that guns are somehow removable from the equation of American life; indeed, it would seem this is impossible. America and guns, suggests American Gun, is a culturally defining ideological relationship, inseparable from one another; beyond that, the film seems unable to formulate a solid conclusion or achieve any harmony between its stories. In viewing a cross-section of individual lives, American Gun tries to encapsulate every aspect of guns in America, simply too big a topic to take in all at once. Indeed, there are three fully-developed films going on here, each worthy in their own right of developing freely. Cramming them all into a 90-minute film compresses them into tiny vignettes; compelling, but nowhere near their potential.
Visually, the film is well-presented on DVD, though each "section" varies in terms of fidelity. Each location is shot in a different color pallette to distinguish each locale visually, with Oregon scenes washed out and pale, Virginia shot in a pallette of rich browns and reds to show autumn warmth, and Chicago in a grainy, harsh blue-and-gray fluorescent light scheme. Not only does this add visual flair and re-emphasize that these characters are indeed separate from one another, it helps the first-time viewer keep track of the story arcs. The Chicago sequences suffer noticeable grain, while the Virginia sequences are oversaturated, but these are all deliberate film-making techniques. Overall, the picture quality is sharp with few noticeable defects or compression artifacts.
The only audio track is a solid 5.1 surround track with average bass response, center-oriented dialogue, and average environmental use of the rear channels. Mostly they go ignored, but when guns start firing or noise picks up, the rear channels pull their weight quite effectively.
In terms of extras, all we get is an eight-minute "making of" featurette assembled by IFC. Not much to get excited about. I did appreciate the English SDH subtitles, however.
American Gun sets out to be as emotionally wrenching as possible, to get a reaction from the audience, to provoke. It succeeds in this sense, but at the expense of common sense. Sure, stuff like this happens all the time, not just in America but all over the world. On the other hand, the statistical probability of all these things happening to the same people again and again is probably something of an artistic liberty taken by the creators. American Gun weighs its protagonists down again and again with insurmountable burdens to illustrate its point, treating some characters with kindness, others with savage cruelty. Worse, the characters who you develop the most attachment to are the ones who get bent over the barrel of the gun.
What American Gun lacks is control. The film is powerful, but it wanders terribly, unsure quite how to resolve its numerous plot arcs. American Gun does not so much end as it simply stops at an arbitrary point, leaving the audience unsure how to reconcile the events. It could have used another 20 or 30 minutes to more satisfactory resolve some of its storylines.
American Gun is gripping and powerful, tackling an ambitious subject with multiple narratives and raw emotion. It is impossible to encapsulate such a complex and multi-faceted issue as guns in America in a single film, but credit the filmmaker for trying to tackle such an ambitious subject. For a film that essentially went straight to video, this is a quality rental, but that's about it.
I'd say not guilty, but barely. We'll let this gun offender off with a warning.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "Making of American Gun" featurette