US, 2002, 89 minutes, Colour.
James Coburn, Virginia Madsen, Barbara Bain, Alexandra Holden.
Directed by Alan Jacobs.
American Gun is a very moving film.
It was written and directed by Alan Jacobs who previously had directed only two films, Nina Takes a Lover and Just One Night, both rather light comedies. The transition to this serious drama is something of a surprise.
This was James Coburn’s last film. He had a long career with such hits in the 60s as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. He became a strong character actor over the decades, winning an Oscar for best supporting actor for Affliction in 1998. This is a fitting last film for him. Virginia Madsen plays his daughter and Barbara Bain his wife.
The film begins with a focus on James Coburn’s character, Martin Tillman, and his love for guns, his experience in World War Two, nightmares after the shooting of a young boy who was a sniper firing at allied troops.
His daughter comes to visit just before Christmas. She is in pain because of her daughter running away. She is killed while visiting the family. The death of his daughter is a time for Martin Tillman to take stock of himself. He begins a trip across America to trace the history of the gun which killed his daughter. He also wants to trace his granddaughter from whom he took the gun. He is a person who stays inside himself, his wife encouraging him to talk to the young priest which at first he refuses but then agrees. He has questions about God – not loss of faith but finding it hard how to handle God and understand him.
The daughter’s death is not shown in detail until the end of the film – and may come as quite a shock for those who were wondering about the solution for the mystery.
1.The impact of the film? Character study? Guilt and responsibility? Guns?
2.The title, the name of the factory which produced the gun? American gun culture? Individuals and families with guns? The acknowledgment of danger, even domestic danger, by people with guns? The tragedies that having a gun can lead to?
3.James Coburn’s screen presence, his last film, a character study – and a tribute to his acting abilities?
4.The prologue: the focus on the gun, young Martin and his comments about how beautiful the gun was, his going to the war, age sixteen, combat, training, the nightmares about going into the house, seeing the young boy, the boy shooting his companion, his shooting the boy? The stuff of nightmare in his later life?
5.Martin, the flashbacks to his meeting and her giving him a lift, seeing him off to the war, the return, their wedding? The birth of Penny and her baptism? His settling down, his work in the factory? Anne and her teaching? Their being retired? The bond between the two – although Martin silent and bottling things up? Anne as a more dominating character?
6.Penny, her coming to visit, her being upset with her daughter’s running away, her mother pressurising her at the meal? Christmas? The discussion with her father about gifts? Her going to buy the gifts? Her being shot, the grief, the funeral?
7.Martin’s reaction, his beginning to write letters to Penny? His outlet in order to communicate? His decision to travel to find the history of the gun? This part of the film as a road film, on the road, in the trains? The insertion of the flashbacks? His memory of Penny and his relationship with her? With Anne? His going to the factory, getting the certificate, going to the woman who bought the gun, discovering its being stolen, the people who used the gun, the young black man getting revenge on his friend, its being used in an abduction? His finally getting to Las Vegas? Finding Mia? The goal of his trip? The flashback to show that he had taken the gun from her bag in the restaurant?
8.Anne’s comment about Martin and his brooding, her visit to the priest and discussions with him? Urging him to talk to the priest? His refusal, the priest being too young? His comments about God and God being hard to understand? His taunting the priest about there being no reason for what happened? His going to the priest, talking about himself, the nightmares? His inability to say that he had shot his daughter?
9.The character of Mia, running away, coming to see her grandfather, asking him for money? Her bond with her mother but not being able to talk to her? Going to Las Vegas, the sleazy atmosphere? Her friends? Martin and his initial inability to tell her about her mother’s death? Finding the opportunity? Giving her the letters? Her realising that he was writing the letters for her? The aftermath and his not feeling the need to write to Penny any more?
10.The flashbacks to the actual situation, Penny and her being mugged, her purse being taken? Her not wanting to go to the police because of the violence of her husband? The flashbacks to her relationship with him, the announcing of her pregnancy, the birth of the daughter, baptising her, the violence of her husband at home, ordering him out? Her daughter blaming her for ordering him away? Her return to the house, getting the gifts, putting them under the tree? Martin being disturbed in the night, getting his gun, shooting the intruder and killing his daughter?
11.The finale, the meal with Anne and Mia, Mia coming to stay with them, his coming to terms with what he had done?
12.The film as a fable about the gun culture, psychological effects for Americans, the tragedies that follow from a gun culture?