Master of British Social Realism heads to America to tell them what’s wrong with them.
Young, idealistic teacher Kathleen has recently moved to Dallas. Interested by the South’s love affair with weaponry and it’s role in history she invites well groomed lawyer Larry to speak to her class about his favourite weapons. After a pleasant few dates Larry’s gentlemanly forbearance disappears as one night he rapes Kathleen at gun point. Unable to find justice via lawful means she decides to learn all she can about guns and how to kill folks in order to exact her revenge.
Writer/director Tony Garnett is perhaps one of the UK’s unsung national heroes. Producing episodes for the series The Wednesday Play, A Play for Today and Kes he was one of the leading exponents of social realist outburst of the late 1960’s. Not just that but Mr. Garnett knows how to pick a compelling story out of seemingly everyday subjects or to treat dark tales with a sober outlook. After a decade in television he released his first feature film Prostitute (you can probably guess what that’s about) before heading to the US where he independently made Handgun. Not content with showing UK audiences how grim live really is up North he decided to show Americans how grim it were down South.
When reading its synopsis it is easy to take Handgun in as a simple revenge thriller. In which case it’s modest budget and unobtrusive camerawork may have you thinking that it’s quite a slow-moving affair directed by a made-for-tv hack. It’s only as the revenge plot comes into effect half way through that you realise the director has taken a deliberately detached approach and allows scenes to play out much more naturally than you’re standard American thriller. Through much of the second half i felt as though I could be watching a Robert Altman film. It’s definitely better to approach Handgun with the understanding that this is a critique of a certain culture that happens to be using the revenge thriller as its conduit. This ain’t no Death Wish with ladies.
Many supporting actors come across as non-professionals – which I’m not using as a criticism – and therefore sound like they really believe it when they talk about the virtues of gun ownership. Throughout the film Garnett gives time enough for all sides of the argument to say their piece about gun ownership. From it’s role in history, to it’s pros and it’s cons all sides are heard but it’s always clear which side Garnett is on. The overall message taken from Kathleen’s vengeance is tried and trusted – violence only begets more violence but in his hands it comes across much more cold and clinical. If his stance is not clear enough just wait for the montage scene displaying a plethora of guns whilst, a frankly disturbing country song, calling for the slaughter of liberals and hippies plays over the top. The film looks at subjects which are openly being debated even now – who can own a gun, what you need to own a gun, how many, what kind and so on. As Garnett also likes to point out, among the law abiding hobbyist there are always the deranged with sinister thoughts.
As Kathleen, Karen Young puts in a great performance. Transforming from a naive, fresh school teacher (in fact she looks younger than some of her students) to a Travis Bickle-esque weapons expert. Actually if there is a note of criticism it would be that at times the film was verging dangerously close to a Taxi Driver copy, but it stays just about the right side of homage. In fact the entire film has a look that it was made in the mid-1970’s not the 80’s. But that could be down more to the locations. Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets also lept to mind a few times. British and American social realist films have always had a different style from each other. US directors such as Cassavettes often went handheld and the scenes were frenetic with dialogue. British social realists such as Ken Loach often keep dialogue sparse and let silence do much of the talking. Seeing Garnett’s style in an American setting takes a little getting used to but overall Handgun is a highly rewarding and surprisingly disturbing watch. It’s great to know that Garnett’s next project was to produce the Sesame Street movie.
Given the seemingly ever-present discussions about gun control these days, Handgun’s message won’t be anything new to anyone. Depending on your standpoint you could see it as yet another anti-gun film to throw on the pile or as prescient today as when it was made. Which given it was made thirty years ago is a slightly depressing thought.
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