Background: Guns and their ownership have been debated to death (pun intended) for a lot longer than most people currently seem to realize. The Founding Fathers of this country grew up in a time when a rifle was not only used to ward off hostile natives but put meat on the table and serve as the means by which to protect this country from those that would take it over. They provided for the "right to bear arms" in the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution and for all the fussing about the specifics, the United States Supreme Court has always seemed to shy away from taking up cases in this regard. The topic polarizes otherwise rational people into two major groups; those that believe in such a right and those that do not (or at least believe in greatly truncating it to the point where ownership would be greatly restricted). Having lived much of my adult life in a very dangerous "inner city" location, I can readily relate to those who think ownership is not just a guaranteed right but a necessity just as I've seen crazies online advocate completely unrestricted access to weapons of mass destruction; taking their cause to the extreme. On the other hand, I grew up in the People's Republic of Massachusetts where liberals desperately wanted to cancel the Bill of Rights behind closed doors with increasing amounts of regulations that stopped just short of preventing any access to guns by the people of the state, using the same old arguments that never convince their opponents one bit. Well, the subject of today's review is American Gun; a movie that sidesteps the discussion of firearms and takes a look at the consequences of guns in our society instead, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions without the usual heavy-handed advocacy of gun control that usually comes from higher budget Hollywood films.
Movie: American Gun is the debut directorial effort of Aric Avelino that takes a relatively obscure method of showing three short films on the subject and edits them together to provide a diverse look at the impact of handguns in our society today. The three communities that are examined are unrelated in any direct way and are geographically separated by thousands of miles, providing an overview that the problems associated with guns are not limited to one area or another so much as something we all have to deal with in one fashion or another.
The movie starts out on the eve of the 3 year anniversary of a Columbine-style high school shooting in Oregon. Two teenagers went on a rampage and killed 15 of their classmates and teachers, both dying when the police responded with enough force to stop them from killing others. The primary characters for this segment were the mother of one of the shooters, Janet Huttensen (Marcia Gay Harden), her son David (Chris Marquette), and the first arriving officer at the shooting, Jay Lawson (Tony Goldwyn); each of whom are haunted by the specter of the event. Janet is working double shifts to keep David in a private school, taking part in a media interview for compensation to help make ends meet. The hack journalists find one of the parents to blame the authorities, showing clips of Jay as a central figure. One of his partners has already committed suicide over not being able to do more and he's living on the edge just as much as Janet and David. The neighbors hold her responsible for the actions of her deceased son and David is forced to leave his sheltered life and go to the school where it all happened when the private school's board succumbs to political pressure by parents.
The second segment revolves around a high school principle called Carter (Forest Whitaker) who is in charge of an inner city school full of the kind of stereotypical elements that we read about in the newspapers. The metal detectors routinely find weapons and the students in attendance face the day to day dangers of the streets, even if the school is slightly safer for them during their day. Carter has a wife and small son but he also feels responsible for the two thousand students he is tentatively in charge of, some of whom are good kids in bad situations. One such student is Marcus (Chris Warren Jr.), a smart kid with good grades who works a job at a gas station at night to help his family pay their bills. He's street smart too and carries a handgun provided by one of his thug friends since he is subjected to robberies and those who'd do him harm to and from work/school. When Carter catches him with a gun, their situation amplifies since Carter comes to the realization that it's not just the bad kids carrying weapons, but the smart kids who don't want to end up statistics. Carter's attention to duty also weighs heavily on his personal life, causing great friction that ultimately appears to lead him to a fork in the road (when his son finds a dead hooker carved up near their residence, it also accelerates Carter's path).
The third segment, shown concurrently, deals with college student Mary Ann Wilk (Linda Cardellini) and her grandfather Carl (Donald Sutherland). She's been a victim in the past and he's the owner of the family gun shop. She feels trapped by family norms to go to school at a local college, work in the gun store, and live a preprogrammed life. When one of her friends is slipped drugs at a party (in her drink) and taken by some fraternity members to a bedroom to be sexually assaulted, she fights them off but only barely manages to succeed; leaving her feeling pangs of fear that she could have been victimized again. She goes to a local gun shop to relearn her skills with a gun with the intent of protecting herself and friends if called upon to do so in the future.
Each of the segments shows people dealing with their own situation as real people would do, picking up the pieces of pasts that were all impacted by criminals with weapons. Some were closer than others but the point of the movie was to show how interrelated all aspects of life are, with the obvious emphasis of bringing the guns themselves into light. Watching how Jay must confront an armed robber and face his fears that he is somehow less a man due to the school shooting, Carter deal with an unappreciative student body, or Mary face her fears through the reintroduction (on a personal level) of guns into her life all have their moments. There were no answers given, no sides taken (I'd argue that the subtle message was clearly how guns made the lives of the characters more difficult but taken one step further, it showed that CRIMINALS did this, not their weapon of choice), and the restraint shown by director Aric Avelino was appreciated from someone that has seen both sides of the issue up close and personal. Thankfully, the TV movie of the week approach that would've shown how prevalent guns are, how only certain evil people sell them to others, or why the government should disregard the Constitution were not in evidence any more than those spouting off the inflated statistics used by the NRA or glorifying guns as the solution to all societal ills were.
The acting was fine and the themes addressed were relevant on many levels with a decent screenplay enhancing the experience. The Wilk segment was the weakest of the three, never letting Sutherland or Cardellini really go anywhere with their characters other than to show gun shop owners in a moderately favorable light. Otherwise, the ending was something of a cop out as nothing was resolved and to quote a friend "Did they run out of money to finish it?" I thought that was the purpose of the movie; to show the never ending cycle by which the impact of guns (and again, by extension, the criminals that wield them) have on us all though as a movie, some form of closure would've been nice. I don't think the movie will provide any real ammunition (pun intended) to either side of the ongoing debate but at least it framed the discussion a bit more honestly so I rated it as a Rent It worth checking out.
Picture: American Gun was presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen color as shot by director Aric Avelino for release by IFC Films. The budget for the movie was reportedly set at ~$2 million, peanuts considering the cast and general level of quality of the show. There was grain, some minor editing slips, and an almost claustrophobic look at some scenes. The movie looked like an indie flick that was fortunate enough to have some talented big names gracing the material with adequate lighting and some compression artifacts.
Sound: The audio was presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital English with some moderate separation on the channels but the dialogue heavy material didn't make extensive use of the format. The vocals were easily heard and the minimal score punctuated the words fairly well but this was another area where the budgetary limitations were designed to make the best of what was available.
Extras: There were some trailers and a short Behind the Scenes feature by the director and cast. In the BTS feature, they discussed the topic of guns as the primary focal point of the movie; being careful to avoid taking sides but it wasn't long enough to allow them to go into detail so the director reiterated his stance about what the movie was trying to achieve.
Final Thoughts: American Gun may not be a classic film on the joys of gun ownership or the horrors of same but it was enough to lend pause for someone to consider the ramifications of the topic in general terms. There were times it got melodramatic and some of the material was definitely more interesting then other parts but it provided food for thought; the goal of director Aric Avelino. The technical aspects of the movie were on the low end, as befitting the budget, but as much as it struggled in some areas (as a debut flick, this is to be expected), it showed a lot of care too. If you're one of the few souls not interested in the subject of guns, it might be of less interest to you but I think most people will find something to like by watching the movie.