“I was attracted to American Gun because it’s about something,” explains James Coburn, the film’s hollow-cheeked, 73-year old star. “It’s not just fluff.”
Coburn should know the difference. Since his onscreen debut in 1959’s “Ride Lonesome”, the durable presence has conquered westerns, comedy, suspense, children’s films, and drama. However, such projects haven’t always been “about something.” Sure, there are the resonant masterpieces like “Cross of Iron”, “The Magnificent Seven”, and “Affliction” (the 1998 Paul Schrader film for which Coburn won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar). Sandwiched in between, however, are frothy lumps of empty cinematic calories like “Hudson Hawk” and Snow Dogs on his 85-film resume.
Yet, even in the most feather-light production, this silver-haired movie veteran with the Cheshire Cat grin always adds something. In 1999’s Payback, Coburn injects a pulse into the otherwise flatlined film, playing an uncharacteristically sensitive mobster. After having his expensive luggage pelted full of holes by Mel Gibson’s trigger-happy antihero, Coburn complains, “Hey – that’s just plain mean!” It’s a funny bit that adds welcome color to Payback’s dull palette of stillborn bleakness.
Just plain mean might also describe the role that won Coburn a trip to the Academy Awards podium. As Glen Whitehouse, a cantankerous, whiskey-guzzling cuss for which “ornery” is a gross understatement, the actor makes a completely and utterly unredeemable character interesting to watch. Whitehouse isn’t a dynamic chameleon that pours on the charm before sinking his talons in, ala Denzel Washington in Training Day. This guy is a predictable drunk quickly pickling himself into dementia and dragging those around him into an emotionally abusive quicksand.
After Whitehouse’s long-suffering wife dies, and her children kneel in prayer before the funeral, he denounces the groups as a bunch of religious nuts and losers. “Not one person in this room is worth even one gray hair on that good woman’s head,” he sneers dismissively. Glen may be a boorish lout, but he’s hypnotic and compelling when the bushy-browed Coburn embodies the unsympathetic part.
Martin Tillman, the gentle, understanding father from American Gun, couldn’t be more of a contrast to Whitehouse. However, there’s a connection between the two films, apart from Coburn’s appearances in both. “Affliction” writer/director Paul Schrader specializes in stories about men in search of something. His most chilling and legendary creation, “Taxi Driver”’s psychotic cabby Travis Bickle, searches for his life’s meaning and finds it only through desperate, delusional acts of violence. In Schrader’s “Hardcore”, the hero is a strict Calvinist father crossing the country in search of his porn actress daughter. “Bringing Out the Dead,” “Raging Bull,” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which Schrader wrote for director Martin Scorsese (“Taxi Driver” was their first effort as a writer/director team), cover similar terrain in their depictions of lost souls looking for redemption and closure.
“I think a lot of a movie’s success is in the writing,” confirms Coburn, “and Schrader is a genius when it comes to writing characters. He just plugs it in, turns it on, and lets it happen. We need more writers like him.”
American Gun was written and directed by Alan Jacobs, a relative newcomer with two previous movies to his credit (“Nina Takes a Lover”, “Just One Night”). However, it plays out like a Schrader film. This time around, the hero is searching not for his life’s purpose or family, but for the owner of the gun that killed his daughter. “I have the gun,” explains Coburn, “and go on a search for who made it and whose hands it was in. That’s the premise.”
Martin Tillman’s life takes an unexpectedly devastating turn after his daughter Penny (Virginia Madsen) visits the Vermont homestead that he shares with wife Anne (Barbara Bain). Martin is a philosophical man, finding comfort in the notion that everything has a reason. This makes it doubly hard for Martin to comprehend the events that transpire during this holiday reunion between daughter, father, and mother. On a last-minute errand one night during her visit, Penny is shot to death. As Martin and Betty are forced to endure this untimely loss, American Gun echoes In the Bedroom and that celebrated film’s brave examination of parental grief.
Struggling to find a meaning behind the madness, Martin searches for a target to blame. This merely distances him from Betty, who snaps, “Why does it have to be anyone’s fault? It just happened.”
Get the rest of the interview in part two of SON OF A GUN: JAMES COBURN ON “AMERICAN GUN”>>>