The heart of American Gun is Martin’s road trip across the country to find the .357 magnum’s previous owner and come to terms with the shooting. Using its serial number, he tracks down a manufacturing plant that produced the weapon. Subsequent stops in Florida, New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas ultimately lead Martin to the truth he so desperately years to attain from the loss of Penny. During this journey, he hears varied tales in which the gun played a part, including acts of desperate self-defense, and passion-filled jealousy.
Those trying to pull a political agenda from American Gun might be disappointed, warns Coburn. “The movie’s approach is unique,” he explains, “because it’s not pro or against guns, but shows what can happen with guns if you don’t pay attention. It’s about knowing how to deal with guns. My character has also been in the army, and there are several flashbacks of what happened to him in the war. He’s seen guns from different viewpoints.”
American Gun initially portrays Martin as a young man fascinated by his grandpa’s service revolver. “It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw,” proclaims Martin of the handgun in an early voiceover. Later, when he serves his own tour of duty during World War II, he bears witness to events that re-shape his relationship with such firearms.
Americans’ uneasy, two-sided relationship with guns – in which they are both romanticized and denounced – seems to be at the heart of the film, a point that director Jacobs confirms in a press release quote. “I wanted to show the contrast between the taking up of arms in World War II,” he explains, “the last war for which there was unanimous national support, and the way guns are present in modern life. I wanted to explore the difference between a time when fighting for what is right was more black and white than it is now.”
American Gun also focuses on how tragedy makes Martin question and reconsider his religious convictions. “I still believe there’s a God,” Coburn’s grieving father assures himself following Penny’s demise. “I just don’t know what to make of him.”
Later in the film, a priest struggles to console the bitter mourner. “God never gives us more trouble than we can handle,” this Man of the Cloth assures.
“Does that mean that if I were a weaker man,” snarls Martin, “My daughter would not be dead?” Again, such religious overtones echo Schrader and Scorsese, filmmakers who seem fueled to tell stories of men tortured by human frailty and begging penance for past sins.
As if comparison to these cinema legends wasn’t praise enough, Jacobs joins the leagues of Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), Atom Egoyan (“Exotica”), and Rose Troche (“The Safety of Objects”), as a director willing to take chances with the chronology of his film. By leaving out a key point in the story until American Gun’s shocking, unexpected finale, Jacobs forces the viewer to re-examine all that has gone before. We make false assumptions about Martin’s motives and are pleasantly blindsided by the film’s final revelation. We’re reminded that there’s more to current film than the banal, cookie-cutter plotting that Hollywood hacks like Michael Bay coast by on.
And in the middle of it all, there’s the magnetic presence of James Coburn. Bouncing back from the rheumatoid arthritis that taxed him physically in the eighties, this under-rated powerhouse rages forth with some of the most memorable acting of his varied, versatile career. “Coburn read the script,” confirmed Jacobs during a recent Q & A at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival to promote American Gun, “and immediately said, ‘I want to do this.’ The sad truth is, there aren’t too many roles of real substance out there for people his age to play.”
Meanwhile, Coburn is quick to praise Jacobs. “I think he’d only done a couple a films before this. I think he got most of what he wanted with the movie.”
James Coburn knows the difference between movies that are “about something,” and movies that are “fluff.” American Gun, his latest triumph, proudly rises above the froth and into the former category.