I loved the first 95 minutes of American Gun. The film examines (you guessed it) the role of guns in American society. Through three separate storylines, we see how guns shape lives from Oregon to Virginia, and the acting is so good, the characters so compelling, that I was glued to my seat, hanging on every word, just waiting to see how the stories would come together for an unforgettable crescendo. The tension builds to an almost unbearable level, and then-
It was like coming to the climax in a book and finding the next page blank. It was like a joke with no punchline…It was like they just pulled the plug at random, and when they did, all my enthusiasm for this film sort of fizzled and faded to black. But, I will try to remember what made American Gun so riveting before it died its terrible death, and armed with the knowledge that you’re going nowhere, you may just want to check it out for yourself.
Janet Huttenson (Marcia Gay Harden) is the mother of a boy who opened fire on several students at his suburban Oregon high school, then turned the gun on himself. Because Janet is held partially responsible for the incident, it’s almost taboo for her to grieve the loss of her son, but her pain is no less palpable. She works two jobs to send her surviving son to a different high school, and agrees to a television interview about the shooting because she needs the money. The interview not only upsets her son, it throws the first officer on the scene (Tony Goldwyn) back into the spotlight, opening old wounds, and forcing him to face the fact that there was nothing he could do to save the victims.
Meanwhile, Carter (Forest Whitaker) is the principal of an inner-city school whose dedication to work is taking a toll on his family life. Though he does his best to keep students on the right track and guns out of school, it is a thankless job that saps his time and energy. He’s saving the lives of strangers’ children while losing touch with his own young son. When his wife asks him to buy the little boy a new backpack, he pulls a flowery pink pack out of the Lost and Found and considers the job done. After all, he grew up wearing his sister’s hand-me-downs and he turned all right. The trouble is that without Carter’s attention, this boy could easily fall through the cracks. Who will guide him if his parents don’t?
Jay (Arlen Escarpeta) proves just how difficult it is to be a good kid living in a bad neighborhood. He studies hard and works nights in a chain-link cage that passes for a gas station/convenience store. Between his job and his walk to and from school, Jay is in constant danger. He carries a fake gun and risks expulsion every day just to feel somewhat safe. He wants to rise above his circumstances, but there’s a very real possibility that he will literally be shot down.
In Virginia, Mary Ann Wilk (Linda Cardellini) has just started college at the same university attended by the rest of her family. She works in her grandfather’s gun shop, just as her mother did, but nothing about work or school feels right to her. After being assaulted at a party, Mary Ann begins feeling uneasy all the time, and she finally decides to learn how to fire the guns that surround her. Like Jay, she just wants to feel safe again. Her grandfather (Donald Sutherland) couldn’t be sweeter, and he’s concerned about the changes in his granddaughter. How strange to think that such kind, unassuming people are undoubtedly purveying some of the very same guns that go on to ruin lives and wreak havoc elsewhere.
As the movie builds to its conclusion, there are hints of resolution, but the monumental finale you’re expecting never comes. After investing yourself in these characters and their tension-laden storylines, you’re expecting more than a sudden cut to the credits. Perhaps this ending is intended to make us think for ourselves about guns and society. Unfortunately, it left me thinking that they shouldn’t have shot their own movie in the foot.