Judge Russell Engbretson ventures into a German thriller rife with subtext as well as subtitles.
He couldn't let her go.
Gun-shy is a well-mounted production that knows where it's going, but can't decide how best to get there.
Facts of the Case
German twenty-something Lukas Eiserbeck (Fabian Hinriches) fulfills his national service obligation by delivering meals to homebound senior citizens. In what appears to be his only hobby, he plies a rowboat down the river in the evenings. One day on his daily bus ride home from work, a young woman by the name of Isabella (Lavinia Wilson) drops a note on his lap that reads "help me" before she disembarks. He catches up with her, and she asks if she can stay at his apartment for the night. Lukas finds his halfhearted sexual advances gently rebuffed, but the next morning she gives him her phone number.
Later Lukas inadvertently discovers Isabella engaged in locker room sex with an older man, who turns out to be her stepfather, Romberg (Johan Leysen). Lukas is now inspired to take up another hobby: He purchases a rifle on the black market and practices shooting beer cans in a secluded meadow. He receives tips on how to shoot from one of his meal clients, Beckman (Rudolph W. Marnitz), a World War II sniper who sports a piratical eye patch.
Lukas is able to acquire the final piece of military hardware for his collection when, in a rare display of emotion, he complains to his neighbor Mr. Krausser (Thorsten Merten) about Korean music blaring from the apartment. Krausser apologizes and invites Lukas in for a drink, explaining his passion for all things North Korean, including the dictator Kim Jong-il. After imbibing a few drinks too many of "adder liquor" (whiskey with a poisonous snake coiled inside the bottle), Krausser passes out—and Lukas drunkenly departs with Krausser's night vision goggles.
Then Lukas has a nighttime boating accident, which sets police detective Johannsen (Christopher Waltz) on his trail. To tell more would give away too much of the story, but the viewer will more than likely have intuited the ending three-fourths of the way through the movie.
The German title of Gun-Shy is Schussangst, which translates to "Fear of Shooting." They should have stuck with the latter title; it is more descriptive of the film, and conveys the not-so-subtle Freudian theme that buttresses the plot. Besides, there are already four movies with the name "Gun-Shy."
Several incidental scenes show Lukas delivering meals to old folks. In one instance, he finds the body of an old woman who has hanged herself; another time he sits down with an elderly lady who is feeding her little dog (obviously the only thing she still lives for) from her own plate. Later in the movie, Lukas arrives to find social service types forcibly carrying her off to a nursing home. She cries piteously for the dog, which is left behind in her apartment. Lukas just stares as she is wheeled away, then sits down and feeds the dog the meal he brought for the client. It is a simple and affecting moment, but it also underscores, at least in part, where the movie goes wrong. When the movie focuses on Lukas's descent into pathological behavior—purchasing a sniper rifle, stalking Isabella's stepfather, viewing people through the sniper scope—it remains in the realm of a psychological thriller. When the movie strays into social commentary (or black comedy, as when Lukas shares a bottle of booze with the lover of all things North Korean and totalitarian), it loses focus, which undercuts the suspense.
Another serious problem arises from the characters' puzzling interactions. When Isabella first meets Lukas, she discusses the merits (or lack thereof) of candles, bananas, and cucumbers as autoerotic devices. Lukas responds in kind with a tale of his boyhood adventure with a warmed-up piece of raw steak. I am relating these events as discreetly as possible; the actual dialogue is very graphic. Perhaps I've led a particularly sheltered life, but I don't believe this represents normal conversation for a first date. Furthermore, their relationship never attains any form of normalcy. There is no explanation of why Isabella initiates contact with Lukas. Over the course of the film, she is usually either teasing or casually cruel. Sexual abuse does not explain all of her personality problems; she might even be her stepfather's seductress. None of the motivations are made clear. Why does Lukas fall for her? When he asks about her sexual relationship with Romberg, Isabella becomes angry and won't speak to him. She won't commit to any real intimacy, emotional or physical. With only a couple of exceptions, they hardly converse at all after their initial meeting. This kind of behavior goes from puzzling to irritating in a hurry.
Parts of Gun-Shy work very well as stand-alone material, but the pieces don't cohere, so by the end I didn't much care about the outcome. It's a shame, because the cinematography is better than average, the acting is fine, and some of the stories that the characters tell (for example, how the sniper lost his eye from a scorpion sting) are engaging. The movie feels bloated at 105 minutes, though it might have made a compelling short feature.
The DVD transfer is competent but suffers from line twitter (noticeable on the rowboat oars, for example). Sound is very good; the dialogue is clear, and music is quite dynamic for a Dolby 2.0 surround mix. My big complaint about the picture is the way it is formatted. It's widescreen and anamorphic letterboxed, yet also pillared on the sides. Frankly, I have no idea what the technical reasons are for black bars all the way around. This is the fourth DVD I've seen done this way. The only extras are four trailers and a three-page text commentary from director Dito Tsintsadze.
The actors are more than adequate in their roles, but the story is so slight a gentle breeze could waft it away. Depending on your tastes, Gun-Shy might be a decent rental. If you like oddball characters and European settings, are not averse to a slow pace, and don't mind a goodly serving of raw language with a dollop of graphic nudity, go for it. Just bear in mind the negatives noted above.
The scriptwriter and director are found guilty, but are released on their own recognizance.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
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