Movie Reviews

Movie Review – American Gun: James Coburn’s Final Film is Perhaps His Best Performance in Years

Written by Alan Jacobs
Directed by Alan Jacobs

Don’t be fooled by the title. If you think this is a “liberal Hollywood anti-gun propaganda film”, you might be missing a touching story about relationships between people as well as what it takes to work through the difficult times in our lives.

James Coburn is Martin Tillman, a World War II veteran who wakes up with nightmares from when his company was being shot at by a kid in a farmhouse and he and a buddy were the ones who went in after him. It’s Christmastime and his daughter, Penny (portrayed by Virginia Madsen), has returned home for the holidays.

There’s a hint at family secrets that need to be revealed as Penny is coping with the fact that her own daughter, Mia (portrayed by Alexandra Holden), has run away. Penny believes it is because Mia blames her mother for her father leaving. Later on, Mia shows up at her grandfather’s work. This event seems tragic initially because Martin acquiesces to his granddaughter’s wish that he not inform Penny that he’s seen her, and later on Penny is shot and killed.

To alleviate his grief, Martin begins writing letters to Penny. He says he is going to look for Mia, but he begins learning about the company, American Gun, that made the gun that killed his daughter and traces the path it took until it got to that point.

The story rambles between the past and present as he is on his quest, showing the events not only in the life of himself and his wife, Anne (portrayed by Barbara Bain) but also in his daughter’s life as well as the path the gun took that brought them all together at that point.

There’s a real twist to the plot- one that I didn’t see coming, so I won’t spoil it. However, just when I thought the plot was headed in a quite contrived direction as Martin locates his granddaughter in Las Vegas, the surprise twist blindsided me and really made sense as the film reached its conclusion.

This is not a film that preaches against the use of guns. The woman who was the original owner uses the gun to successfully defend herself from a serial killer. The path the gun takes from this woman’s hands to the hands of a New York City medical student, to a schoolyard shooting, and finally to become the instrument that kills Penny is interesting, but it’s not the main focus of the film.

Martin is compelling in his grief. He is not so out of his mind with it that I could say he was insane, but rather he seemed to be on a quest. What he is searching for is not immediately clear, as the path is convoluted. When he first visited the gun company, I thought he was about to rail against them for making the instrument that had taken his daughter’s life, but there is no scene of this. Again, when the film reaches the conclusion it all makes sense, but until then I couldn’t understand what he was doing or why he needed to do it. This makes the film quite compelling to watch.

James Coburn is terrific as Martin. His presence on the screen gives Martin a determination few actors could pull off. Whatever he is seeking to do, there is little doubt that he will accomplish it. This was Coburn’s final film, and it’s one of the finest performances I’ve seen by him. Though he doesn’t portray the young Martin in the flashbacks to World War II, it was easy to connect the two visually as Ryan Locke – who portrayed the young Martin – did so quite convincingly. Virginia Madsen is also terrific as Penny, but she is given a wider range to play in the flashback sequences and pulls these off quite well.

Barbara Bain’s performance is perhaps the most uneven, but I don’t necessarily blame her. In the beginning, she is not depicted as being all that loving or understanding to her daughter. You’d think after Penny dies that Anne would question some of her choices in life; if she could have forged a better relationship with her daughter. However, she does seek out the counseling of the young Pastor of her church (portrayed by Jesse Pennington) when she grows concerned about her husband’s mental state, showing that she is not a completely cold woman devoid of emotion. Yet she is never shown going through any real grief of her own.

The flashback sequences to World War II are shown in black and white to give the illusion of being “long ago” only the black and white is not pure. There are hints of color from time to time, especially hues of pink, green and yellow. The scenes dating back to the seventies or early eighties are better, although the film doesn’t feel grainy enough for a genuine feel for that time period. Still, the effect is a good one for giving the setting of the time period, even if it’s not perfect.

If you’ve never heard of this movie, it’s well worth seeking out. I was delightfully surprised by this terrific film, which should have garnered more notice.

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