James Coburn's triumphant Oscar win for Affliction revitalized his career and gave him a burst of activity before his death late in 2002. His last performance was in this interesting but confusing film that has been discussed mainly as a socially-conscious call for gun control. American Gun uses a gun for part of its story but spreads its effort among several issues and ideas. The acting is fine, but in the final analysis the movie doesn't seem to have a clear point to make and emerges as an okay drama.
The film most closely resembles 2001's In the Bedroom, where a middle-aged couple have to deal with the senseless killing of their son. James Coburn's grim father embarks on a journey to find the killer of his daughter much as did George C. Scott in the now seldom-screened Paul Schrader movie Hardcore. As in The Searchers, Coburn's odyssey mutates into an interior search along the way.
The big search is filled out with material that doesn't add up to a satisfactory whole. Coburn recalls B&W memories of a WW2 incident, with his younger self played by Ryan Locke. Through repetition, one tense situation involving the death of a German child-soldier slowly unspools, Sergio Leone-style. The flashback structure is an old-fashioned, clichéd pattern from 50s TV dramas - the traumatic experience that recurs in nightmares to illuminate a character study.
We also see reenactments of violent incidents with the gun's previous owners. They include a kidnap victim who used it to defend herself and a kid who bought it on the black market to use in a dispute over a girl. These violent but unsatisfactory tangents divert us from Coburn's first-person experience. If this story of a gun is meant to form an ironic 'La Ronde' pattern, as with the ill-fated tuxedo in Tales of Manhattan, it doesn't work. The gun never becomes a symbol of anything, especially not an anti-gun argument. The original gun store owner is a sympathetic character, even though he has a rebel flag on his wall (un-P.C.! un-P.C.!). The gun also saves a woman from her would-be-murderer, an unlikely event that goes against statistics. Some complainers think American Gun is anti-NRA, and that just isn't so.
The picture is more about the mindset of Coburn's Martin Tillman. He still believes in God but "can no longer make out what God's all about." We think Tillman's embarking on an Ethan Edwards-like mission of vengeance, but he hasn't a mean bone in his body. The story does come to a Searchers- like conclusion when Martin Tillman succeeds in part of his quest. An 11th-hour story twist changes the entire nature of how the killing took place, and puts the story into a fine confusion.
Coburn performs admirably but isn't given the necessary powerhouse scenes that would be needed to make the story work - there aren't any emotional crescendos we can embrace, only the unsatisfying story reveal near the end. Barbara Bain is fine as the mother who doesn't realize how unbearable her dinner-table criticism is to her daughter. But in a flashback Bain is revealed to have been supportive during earlier crises when now-mellow dad wasn't much of a help. Virgina Madsen's role is brief, but she's good as the daughter who's lost her husband. She's particularly convincing in the brief flashbacks to her high-school days as a teen with glasses. Alexandra Locke is also good as the runaway, but the character is too sketchy. When Coburn finally makes contact with her, the impact is missing.
Writer Director Alan Jacobs provides the proper visuals for Coburn's snowbound New England home. The journeys by train and rented car are less clearly defined, mainly because of the constant interruptions of flashbacks. Everything is well directed with the exception of the formulaic WW2 flashback material. American Gun doesn't begin to touch the emotional impact of In the Bedroom but it's not without some touching and thoughful moments of its own.
Miramax's DVD comes with a fine extra, an A&E Biography docu on James Coburn's life. Among the expected public domain trailer clips we see some rare family photos and film snippets. Coburn spars with pal Bruce Lee in home movies and we see a glimpse of what looks like an unlabeled screen test for Our Man Flint. Coburn's rheumatoid arthritis grief in the 80s and his Oscar comeback for a final bow provide an almost perfect dramatic curve - vitality cut short by affliction, but triumph before an early death. 1
The enhanced color image (1:85) is very attractive and the audio has no problems.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
American Gun rates:
1. I saw Mr. Coburn several
times in the early 90s at audio houses where he recorded voiceover for television commercials.
He always looked incredibly cheerful.
If he was in pain at the time, he hid it well. He recorded a commentary for a disc I worked on,
The Magnificent Seven, but I wasn't
able to attend the session, darn it.