Judge Clark Douglas prefers a Swiss Army Knife.
Our review of American Gun, published September 22nd, 2006, is also available.
When family is involved, revenge is the only option.
There's a story I've heard on multiple occasions about actor James Coburn that has always stuck with me. Coburn had been hired for a role in Paul Schrader's harrowing drama Affliction. Schrader wanted to be sure that Coburn was up to the task of taking on the difficult, mean-spirited role, and encouraged the actor to do heavy preparation for the part. Coburn's reply: "Oh, you mean you want me to really act? I can do that. I haven't often been asked to, but I can." Coburn would go on to win an Oscar for the role, and his performance made one regret that he hadn't been asked to act more often. Coburn's final performance was in Alan Jacobs' 2002 drama American Gun, and it's a turn every bit as magnificent as the actor's Oscar-winning work a few years earlier. Unfortunately, it's trapped in a movie that ultimately proves unworthy of such impressive work.
Coburn plays Martin Tillman, who is the tender-hearted father of Penny (Virginia Madsen, Sideways) and the even more tender-hearted grandfather of Mia (Alexandra Holden, The Hot Chick). Recently, the relationship between Penny and Mia has grown strained, causing Mia to run away from home and Penny to enter a state of ceaseless worry. Martin tries to smooth things over between the two, secretly meeting with Mia in an attempt to coax her into coming home. During this process, tragedy strikes: Penny is shot and killed by a mugger in a department store parking lot. In the weeks that follow, the police have no luck finding the whereabouts of the killer. Using the serial number of the gun used in the killing as his only lead, Martin makes an extensive trip around the United States, tracing the gun's history from owner to owner and picking up valuable pieces of information along the way.
This journey forms the bulk of the film's running time, and Jacobs delivers a number of thoughtful interludes which reasonably, objectively examine the assorted ways in which guns are used in America. The gun's first owner used it to save her own life from a violent attacker, while later owners used it in the commission of crimes. It's been lost, found, sold, re-sold, lost and found again over the years, and Martin's quiet conversations with the people he encounters are touching. He also begins to wrestle with his own faith, admitting that, "I still believe in God; I just don't know what to think of him." The most heartbreaking exchange comes when he returns home and reluctantly agrees to speak with his priest.
Priest: "God never gives a burden heavier than we can bear."
It's a compelling, well-acted, well-directed journey Martin takes, and Coburn continually brings fascinating shades to the character. His performance is a thing of understated beauty; there's as much power in the moments when he bites his tongue as when he digs into weighty monologues. Madsen also does some strong work, though obviously her screen time is cut short by the film's plot. So what's the problem?
Sadly, the film has a Big Twist up its sleeve. Oh sure, it's a surprising twist that will catch most viewers off guard (I certainly wasn't expecting it) and it may seem diabolically clever for a moment. However, it quickly reveals itself to be the worst sort of Big Twist a movie can contain: the kind that robs much of what has come before of its power. The developments of the last act transform a powerful journey into a half-baked cinematic con game, and the raw power of Coburn's performance deserves so much better than that. American Gun gets so much right, but most of that is wrecked by its last-minute decisions.
The DVD transfer is quite solid, boasting a crisp, clean image and sturdy detail. Black levels are satisfactorily deep and flesh tones are warm and natural. Audio is also just fine, with a solid mix of low-key dialogue, sound design and music. No extras of any sort are included.
I suppose American Gun is worth seeing simply so viewers can acknowledge the fact that Coburn concluded his career on such a strong note, but the film could have and should have been so much better.
Note: Another film entitled American Gun (starring Forest Whitaker, Marcia Gay Harden and Donald Sutherland) was released in 2005. The similarities between the films go far beyond the shared title, but the 2005 film offers a considerably more successful examination of this hot-button subject matter.
The final act will be required to serve prison time, while the first
two-thirds are released on parole for aiding and abetting the final act.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
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