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By KJ Doughton | March 7, 2005

Jack Kelson is that hairy, haggard-looking guy you’ve seen washing his hair in the sink of a bus stop bathroom. He’s the one with the tattooed biceps, wild-west moustache, and pony-tailed mane who smokes ciggies in front of the unemployment office. He’s the fellow sitting crisscross applesauce on the curb of a downtown mission, strumming a ukulele. He’s down and out. “American Heart,” released in 1993 and directed by Martin Bell, is his story.

Some movies, like Napoleon Dynamite, follow characters who refuse to change. The world around them continues to turn, while these defiantly rigid souls resign themselves to some static, parallel universe. Other films, like “American History X,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” and “American Heart,” take a different route. They examine strong personalities who, through personal epiphanies or traumatic struggles, rotate 180 degrees to embrace previously alien causes or values.

Played brilliantly by Jeff Bridges, Jack Kelson demonstrates such a shift. “American Heart” opens with the homeless loser re-entering society after serving five tough years in prison. He’s uneducated, and without much job experience. Visiting his parole officer and asked if he has any marketable skills, Jack responds, “No, I can’t do nothin’.” One can sense a long, uphill battle waiting for Jack. Then, we’re introduced to another untimely fly in the ointment, when this scraggly ex-con’s son arrives on the scene, eager to bond with a father he hasn’t seen in nearly half a decade.

Fresh from Aunt Vera’s rural farm, Nick (Edward Furlong) persistently trails his old man, despite being repeatedly ditched. Finally, Jack reluctantly allows this long-absent son to enter his small, rumpled window of life. “Don’t ask me to hold your hand,” the hard-a*s elder warns. “I don’t need the aggravation.” Jack acquires a dreary flophouse room and takes on work as a high-rise window washer. Nick stands on the sidelines, weathering the emotional neglect of a father too disconnected and indifferent to care.

Jack’s callous treatment of sad-eyed, fourteen year old Nick is so painful it sometimes veers into jet-black comedy. They share their room’s single bed by giving one the mattress and the other a box-spring frame. Jack ends up with the less desirable latter. It’s so uncomfortable that he later “trades” it after Nick is asleep, plopping his limp son onto the springs and stealing the softer, floor-planted mattress for himself. It’s a pathetic spectacle, but also somewhat funny, a case of the viewer having to decide whether to laugh or cry.

Ditto for Jack’s clueless insistence that Nick get some education. “You’re going to school,” Jack demands. Nick asks where. “Find one,” the informative father responds. Later, Bridges boasts that he’ll soon be on a financial gravy train. “I’ll be making real money real soon – real big money.” Reality comes crashing down, however, when he follows such dubious boasting by asking Nick for a quarter.

“American Heart” is full of these clever, street-savvy exchanges. Take the scene in which Jack pays a visit to his old partner in crime, hoping to claim his share of money from the heist that put him away. Rainey (Don Harvey), a bank-robbing sociopath whom Jack covered for in prison, is eager to recruit this old partner for another round of thievery. “You’re either the do-er or the do-ee,” Rainey explains, rationalizing his predatory approach to life. Meanwhile, having spent all of Jack’s “take,” this sleazy opportunist has precious little seed money to offer his father-son visitors. “Two hundred dollars isn’t much for a six large haul,” grumbles Jack.

Other subplots bloom and take form. One involves Charlotte (Lucinda Jenney), a female cabbie who once acted as Jack’s pen-pal, writing him letters from the outside as he festered behind bars. When Jack brings this newfound squeeze home to his humble fleabag abode and finds Nick sacked out there, he bribes his son to get lost, slapping a twenty into his hand and hinting, “There’s an all-night diner down the street.” Repelled by Jack’s faulty prioritization skills, Charlotte bails. Camped on the doorstep, Nick re-enters, only to find Jack demanding his money back.

One could be excused for wondering why they would want to watch Jack’s crummy life unfold. In many ways, he’s an antisocial miscreant looking out only for Number One. But Bell drops hints that this seemingly unsympathetic man has the hopes, dreams, and heart to redeem himself. Black and white flashbacks suggest that Jack was orphaned and institutionalized at an early age. And during a work break atop a high-rise scaffold, he gazes across the Puget Sound towards Alaska, “the roof of the world,” where he dreams of one day settling down.

“American Heart” packs a devastating punch during its final, wrenching reel, when Nick – fed up with his father’s lousy example and caught up in a teenaged group of petty thieves and streetwalkers – puts himself in harm’s way. After a volatile argument that results in Nick leaving the apartment, Jack gains an awareness of what’s at stake. When the enlightened father glimpses Nick during his window-washing gig, Jack reveals the insight to look outside of himself and take stock of this at-risk offspring. His attempts to intervene, and finally take on the role of Nick’s protector, make for an emotional powerhouse. The transformation is complimented by gravel-voiced Tom Waits’ earthy background music.

Navigating this character’s startling shift from self-preservation to selfless father figure is Jeff Bridges. A chameleon who never pushes his characters into scenery-chewing parody (ala recent Al Pacino), this underrated screen treasure allows them to slowly, insidiously grow on you. Nothing ever feels forced. All the same, Bridges’ laid-back, easygoing charm comes in several different flavors: line up this guy’s dynamic platter of career performances, and you’ve compiled some of the most unusual, daring, enduring creations in film. Remember Jack Lucas, the shock-radio DJ from “The Fisher King?” How about his “Starman” alien? Or his more polished, commercial turn in “Seabiscuit”? Or Bridges’ brilliant stoner turn in “The Big Lebowski”? Can the presence that played dapper, confident, 1940’s auto icon Preston Tucker (in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 biopic, “Tucker”) really be the same force behind Kelson, a man at the polar opposite end of humanity’s economic and social spectrums?

Meanwhile, Martin Bell helms “American Heart” like a veteran. Truth is, this was his first feature film, shot after the equally brilliant street-kid documentary “Streetwise.” The two films share striking similarities. “Streetwise” saw Bell roaming the rain-soaked sidewalks of Seattle in 1984, chronicling the painful, gritty fights for survival waged by underage prostitutes, panhandlers, and dumpster-divers. One tragic story involved Dewayne, A melancholy tike who visits his father in prison. According to “Streetwise” soundman Luther Keith Desmond, whose comments appeared on the Internet Movie Database, this real-life relationship inspired Pete Silverman’s screenplay for “American Heart.” It’s easy to see the connection. Like Jack, Dewayne’s old man is a bit of a blowhard, preaching unlikely optimism about the attainment of future dreams that even his son knows are out of reach.

“American Heart” is stamped with a unique look, courtesy its seldom-filmed Puget Sound backdrop. Seattle is a criminally under-used blend of pristine nature and urban culture, boasting peep show havens like “Lusty Lady” alongside more mainstream attractions like Pike Street Market and the world’s first Starbucks. This fascinating contrast between highbrow and lowlife is emphasized by Bell in a number of scenes. At one point, Furlong’s alienated, throwaway ragamuffin accompanies a young girl to her mother’s work setting. Watching these kids maneuver through a maze of jerk-off booths and stripper stages, we realize that “mom” is a nude dancer. Another moment features Bridges and Furlong staring from a pier into the hopeful, smooth surface of Elliott Bay, home to misty, blue waters and noisy ferry boats. The mysterious beauty of Seattle’s landscapes makes us feel that perhaps, just maybe, this fragile family of two will make it in the world.

“American Heart” grossed a paltry $384,048 in America. Has it found a new life on video? Not exactly. During a recent jaunt to a northwest home-movie shop, I found fourteen copies of the 1998 video release gathering dust in the bargain bin section. It’s no great sin to find this fate cursing a piece of celluloid kryptonite like “Cop and a Half” or “Gigli.” When a film as powerful as “American Heart” is also stockpiled like so much forgotten plastic, it’s disheartening. Artisan Entertainment released Bell’s under-appreciated gem on DVD in 2003, as a no-frills pan and scan version. Like the forgotten, inner-city untouchables that he reminds us are out there, it seems that Bell’s movies have been swept under the carpet. It’s a shame. “Keller,” a crime feature based on the writings of Lawrence Block and rumored to be his next project, will reportedly re-team the filmmaker with Bridges. Perhaps this rematch between two overlooked and unsung cinema talents will enhance their profiles and bring attention to “American Heart,” their uniquely compassionate portrayal of society’s underdogs.

KJ Doughton resurrects reels and breathes life back into films currently on life support and verging on extinction. Applying his “rave resuscitation” to movies at risk of fading into obscurity due to old age, faltering promotional systems, premature delivery, societal stigma, or a runty box-office take, he advocates a second chance for flat-lining films too important to die.

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