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American Gun (A Movie Review)

Updated: May 21, 2023

American Gun

American Gun


Starring Linda Cardellini, Tony Goldwyn, Marcia Gay Harden, Donald Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon, Arlen Escarpeta, Chris Marquette, Nikki Reed, Amanda Seyfried, Melissa Leo, Schuyler Fink, Lisa Long, Chris Warren Jr., David Heymann and Joseph Kell.

Screenplay by Aric Avelino and Steven Baga Tourian.

Directed by Aric Avelino.

Distributed by IFC First Take.  95 minutes.  Rated R.

Guns and violence are the threads that tie together dozens of disparate people  (according to the director, there are over 50 speaking parts) in the quietly devastating American Gun.  It is very reminiscent of the work of Robert Altman (who, ironically created a thematically similar TV series called just Gun) or Paul Haggis’ Crash. However, this movie weaves a spell of dread and fear and near futility that is almost unbearable.  I mean this as a positive thing — it is the world that this movie inhabits that is difficult to take, not the stories which are fascinatingly intense and often winningly subtle.

American Gun is not so much about gun violence as it is about how people are affected by it.  All the characters mostly satellite around three stories — which are intertwined and yet have no real connection other than weaponry.

The first, quietest story stars Linda Cardellini (ER) as a college student from California who is sent to go to school and live with her grandfather (Donald Sutherland) in Virginia when she witnesses a friend being gang-raped.  The grandfather owns a gun store — and it is to the movie’s credit that it doesn’t take the easy route and make Sutherland a clichéd gun nut.  He is merely a businessman and guns happen to be his wares, he is obviously very caring and very careful with his customers.  Nonetheless, his relationship is still strained with his already on edge granddaughter who feels extremely uncomfortable with the gun culture.

The second story involves a former high school teacher (the always amazing Forest Whittaker — he really should act more even if it cuts into his directing career) who moves his wife (Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon of NYPD Blue) and son to an inner city school where he takes a job as principal and finds his life and spirit eroded by the constant barrage of violence in his school.  He tries to save his marriage at the same time as he tries to save a promising student (Arlen Escarpeta of American Dreams) from descending into a violent ghetto lifestyle.

Both of these stories are powerful in their own way, but the last story is nearly devastating.  Oscar winning actress Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock) plays a woman whose oldest son commits a Columbine-type murderous rampage at the local high school before committing suicide.  She is forced to deal with the guilt of not knowing that her child could be capable of something like that at the same time that she mourns for the death of her child.  She also can’t keep a job because of the fall-out, her neighbors blame her and she can’t afford to move.  Her youngest son (Chris Marquette of Joan of Arcadia) is being tortured when he has to return to the school where his brother is reviled, but he starts to find some solace when he meets a girl (Nikki Reed of Thirteen) who sees him for who he is and not for who his brother was — until her life too is touched by gun violence.

In the meantime, the policeman (Tony Goldwyn) who was first on the scene of the high school massacre is also trying to get his life back in order and regain his faith in himself as an officer.

If it seems that I am naming an awful lot of actors, this is for a reason.  The acting in American Gun is abnormally good — top to bottom the cast is nearly flawless.  Harden and Whittaker are stunning in their showy roles, but more subtle characters like Sutherland, Goldwyn, Cardellini and the fantastic younger actors Escapeta, Reed and Marquette are all up to the challenge of keeping up.  Much of the power of American Gun stems from the fact that we believe fully in this world… and this is greatly due to the strong character work.

American Gun does not have any easy answers, in fact it really doesn’t have any answers at all.  It just shows that in a world gone mad, sometimes the best you can do is continue to go forward and try to be the best you can be.

Also don’t stand up before the credits to the film are completely finished.  American Gun saves one last distressing gut punch for the closing seconds — a short, audio only exchange which is as shocking as it is horrifying.  This discussion sums up the cost of gun violence as well as anything ever could.  (9/06)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2006  All rights reserved.  Posted: September 2, 2006.


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