American Gun (February 15/04)
It's a shame about American Gun, really. Though it features a fantastic lead performance from James Coburn (in his final film role) and a genuinely involving mystery, the film completely falls apart in the last 15 minutes thanks to an incredibly silly plot twist. Writer/director Alan Jacobs clearly has issues with guns and gun control, and eventually turns his film into an issue-oriented think piece.
The film revolves around Martin Tillman (Coburn), whose daughter (played by Virginia Madsen) dies after being shot during a robbery. Tillman, unhappy with the way the police are handling the case, takes matters into his own hands and begins investigating. After claiming the gun that killed his daughter, he starts tracing its history back to the original owner - in the hopes that it might lead him to the killer.
Right up until that fatal last reel, American Gun is a mostly engaging and intriguing character study of an expectedly determined man. Anchored by a particularly strong performance from Coburn, the deliberate pace of the movie effectively establishes Tillman as someone's whose motives we can understand. Though Jacobs' style occasionally resembles that of a TV movie (ie a montage of Tillman and his wife doing various things after their daughter dies) and he's certainly guilty of overusing flashbacks, he effectively takes his time in laying the entire story out. The slow build allows us to sympathize with Tillman to the extent where we genuinely care about him.
But Jacobs can't resist turning the movie into more than just a piece of entertainment, and throws in a last-minute plot twist that's more laughable than anything else. Without delving too far into spoiler territory, the nature of Coburn's actions - when all the information is laid out before the viewer - eventually stretches credibility further than it has any right to go. The improbable nature of his behaviour following the death of his daughter is initially understandable, but the final revelation doesn't withstand even minor scrutiny.
Still, up until that point, American Gun is an intriguing examination of the manner in which one man deals with an admittedly severe loss. Coburn gives a somber and compelling final performance that's impressive, but would have been far more so had the film not been undermined by its last few minutes.