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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Where There's Gunsmoke, There's Gunfire
by Donald Levit

Unhysterical, sobering, yet warm, American Gun is better and more accurate than look-at-me Bowling for Columbine, which raises a dozen gut questions while managing to answer none of them. Fiction derived from traumatic happenings, it is also superior to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, a film less successful in considering the same events than arresting for its bold returns -- at different times, angles and viewpoints -- to the same corridor scenes.

Director/co-writer (with Steven Bagatourian) Aric Avelino’s first feature is actually not about that central event, anyway. Rather, it takes the wise step of looking, not at a particular school massacre, but, three years afterwards, at those intimately affected, at how they live on with repressed guilt and failure. In fact, there are five stories here, crossing America, two in Oregon, the same in Chicago, and one in the Shenandoah Valley, and though characters touch within each of the three separate locales, and though all are kindred in overcoming individual isolation, those in the Pacific Northwest, Midwest and East do not come across one another, as frequently happens in such mosaic films.

Nor, finally, and as evidence that the goal is neither a superficial look at causes nor at immediate bloody consequences, is there a high graphic body count, as current movies go. Two brief un-gory single-bullet shootings, a few missed shots at a gas station, one vague attempted date rape, one barely glimpsed body in a school parking lot, and a bitter but unphysical neighborhood row. Important for their effects on the protagonists, none of these distracts with the usual loving slow-motion voyeurism, and the one great violence is aural and not visual at all, heard against simple white credits on black as, opening and especially closing, an unidentified hysterical Rebecca screams to a would-be calming 911-operator as murderers close in and officers rush to the scene.

In Ellisburgh, Oregon, Newsline interviews a nervous, abstracted Janet Huttenson (Marcia Gay Harden) about her son Robbie’s participation with another in the random shootings and killings at public Ridgeline High School. Answering insensitive but probing questions, she is evasive, never saw it coming and, though naturally grieving for the dead and their families, is not responsible. She has consented to this televised torture because, working two jobs, she is alone and needs money to keep surviving son David (Chris Marquette) at the St. Anthony’s prep school and out of Ridgeline. Three years younger, so now at the same age as his infamous dead brother at the time of the rampage, David is withdrawn, uneasy with his protective mother and resentful of her boyfriend Barry (Todd Tesen), and explodes when the private academy decides it’s better for all concerned that he should withdraw. That leaves the public institution, the only saving grace of which is sympathetic new fellow student Tally (Nikki Reed), whom he arranges to meet one evening.

Nosey Newsline intimates police responsibility and failure, and inserts clips of the catastrophe and of Officer Frank Essel (Tony Goldwyn), who phones the station to object to this unauthorized invasion of his privacy. Assuring him that “you have a job here,” superiors on the force ask that he appear on television to rebut the insinuations and also see a department psychologist (Lee Garlington).

Half-a-country away, Carter (Forest Whitaker, who also executive produced) is devoted to helping students and parents at Chicago’s West Side ghetto Taft High School. A predecessor’s metal detectors are succeeding at keeping guns and violence relatively at bay, but Principal Carter is losing his young son and wife Sara (Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon). The thankless job gives no time to talk or pal around with the boy, and the wife objects to his late hours and laments the better position she left behind in bucolic Ohio. Personally removing litter from the steps, he catches academic ace Jay (Arlen Escarpeta) stashing a handgun which he got from a friend for protection while studying at a night job in the cashier’s cage of a gas station-liquor store. Though the firearm technically did not enter the school, the penalty should be expulsion for the serious, goal-oriented boy.

Five-hundred miles further east, Maryanne Wilk (Linda Cardellini) is an unhappy freshman at the University of Virginia, her family’s traditional college. She now feels estranged in what was her childhood hometown and is silent working in grandfather Carl’s (Donald Sutherland) King’s Gun Shop. White-haired and –bearded, he terribly misses his deceased wife and the closeness once shared with this granddaughter. Shaken by friend Cicily’s (Schuyler Fisk) fraternity-house drugging and near rape, Maryanne learns to shoot and is fascinated when her own hand is used to model a pistol grip.

With fewer loose ends than normal -- though a spray-painted plastic gun leaves unanswered worries -- each of these related but separate tales moves toward a renewal of communication. If a resolution to great grief exists, it lies not in fashionable public ceremonies of closure, but in open contact with others’ hearts and the re-forging of what Nathaniel Hawthorne saw as the great magnetic chain of humanity. 

(Released by IFC Films and rated “R” for violent content and language.)

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