Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 34 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 4; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on
this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.
This collection of fictional stories about seven people affected by guns is the debut feature film of Aric Avelino, who wrote the screenplay with Steven Bagatourian. The subtitle on my copy of the DVD reads “ONE NATION UNDER FIRE,” but the film itself is not as sensational in its handling of the topic, nor as strident in suggesting an antidote for our American infatuation with guns, as we might expect. Although violence hovers around the stories like a malignant specter, the stories themselves deal with the affect of guns upon the characters, more than the act of using a gun—except for two incidents: one involves a police officer coming upon a robbery-shooting in a convenience store, and the other in which a black teenager working at an all-night gas station comes under fire. Some viewers will think of the ensemble cast of Crash when they see this film with its excellent actors.
In Ellisburgh, Oregon single parent Janet Huttenson (Marcia Gay Harden) struggles to support herself and her son David (Chris Marquette) by holding down two jobs. She is still numbed by the horrific fact that her son Robbie and another boy randomly killed several fellow students at the public Ridgeline High School before being shot and killed themselves. This was three years earlier, and younger brother David has been able to find refuge at the private St. Anthony’s prep school. However, now Janet is short on money, so David will have to leave the expensive private school and return to Ridgeline. Terrified at the prospect, David erupts, all his fears plus his long-simmering hostility toward his mother’s slob of a boyfriend contained in his screams hurled at her like bullets. Because of her money shortage, Janet agrees to a paid TV interview on the nationally televised Newsline, but the insensitive woman reporter turns the event into a hell, inferring that Janet’s bad parenting must have been a major factor in the tragedy. Unable to explain what happened, Janet claims that she saw nothing in her Robbie that would have given any warning of his deadly intentions. The sullen David does return to Ridgeline, where students whisper as he goes by that he is the brother of the killer. However, his experience is graced by a new female student who is both sympathetic and agreeable to “hanging out” with him…
Also ill at ease in Ellisburgh is Officer Frank Essel (Tony Goldwyn), who three years earlier was the first to respond to the 911 call at the high school. He has lived under the cloud of the public perception that he might have done better to prevent the killings. This is revived when the Newsline interview includes clips of him, the narrative implying the slow police response bears partial responsibility for the carnage. Angered because he had neither been forewarned nor asked for permission, he calls up the station in protest of what he regards as an invasion of his privacy. This leads to his superior, who had been contacted by the station, assuring him “you have a job here,” but ordering him to appear in an interview to rebut the harsh insinuation, and also to talk with the department psychologist…
Halfway across the country in Chicago Principal Carter (Forest Whitaker) is dedicated to “making a difference” in the lives of students and parents at Taft High School, located in the West Side ghetto. Metal detectors have prevented the boys from bring guns into the building, but he is constantly having to break up fights and talk with a steady stream of students who are in various kinds of trouble. Constantly threatened with violence, the kids see no value in education. Carter’s work hours are so long and emotionally draining that he has no time for his young son and wife Sara (Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon). He is insensitive to the boy’s needs—even when the child and some friends come upon the dead body of a prostitute, Carter is too busy to talk with the boy, much to the disgust of his wife. Sara had originally agreed to his desire to help the underprivileged students, which meant leaving their now seemingly idyllic life in a small Ohio town, but now grieves over what is happening to the family.
Another character whose story is intertwined with Principal Carter’s is Jay (Arlen Escarpeta), an African American student doing well academically despite the lack of interest of his mother and siblings who are so absorbed by television that they barely acknowledge his coming and goings. He holds down a night job as a clerk in a gas station where a cage-like booth is his only protection from robbers. Thus he carries a gun with him, mainly for show, as it is not loaded. Just before entering the school building he hides it in a basement window cell. One morning while Carter is personally picking up litter on the front steps he spies Jay hiding the gun again. Seizing the gun and ordering the boy into his office, the principal explodes, telling Jay that he is expelled, even though he did not try to bring the weapon into the school, and that it was not loaded…
Still further east in Charlottesville, Virginia Maryanne Wilk (Linda Cardellini) is an unhappy freshman at her family’s traditional school, the University of Virginia. She works part-time at King’s Gun Shop, owned by her grandfather Carl (Donald Sutherland). Terribly missing his deceased wife, the lonely Carl had looked forward to re-establishing the close relationship he once enjoyed with Maryanne, but the sullen girl barely speaks to him, carrying on her simple duties in silence. The kindly man does not just sell guns, but takes a personal interest in each customer. In one scene he tries to convince a woman that a smaller pistol would suit her better, even taking her hand and showing how there is a perfect fit with the handle of the smaller weapon. Maryanne, shaken when she rescues her best friend from being raped by drunken frat boys at a wild party, starts taking shooting lessons for self-protection…
I have left three periods at the end of each of my expositions to indicate that there is more that follows. The stories vary in regard to their resolution, two of them almost coming together in a Hollywood match-up between Janet Huttenson and Officer Frank Essel, though, to its credit, the filmmakers stop before this happens. The Chicago characters do watch the Janet in Ellisberg being interviewed on TV, but otherwise the stories are bound together only by the use of guns, or in the case of the Virginia story, the possible use of one.
At just a little over an hour and a half, the film is too short for what could have been a fuller and more satisfying exposition of the lives of the seven major characters. This is especially true of the latter story, although the writers foil the expectations of gun opponents by refusing to stereotype gun owner Carl Wilk. He is depicted as a warm, caring human being who is more interested in the safety of his customers than their money. In other words, he is just the opposite of the loutish gun shop owner in Crash, who is almost demonized to the point of sprouting horns.
Aric Avelino and his co-writer Steven Bagatourian are more interested in getting viewers to think about the issue of guns and violence than in pushing one viewpoint. Their approach reminds me of the film that for me redeemed Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven, a Western that also was an anti-Western in that it explored the aftermath of violence as much as reveling in the inevitable gun fights of the genre. You might recall Eastwood’s gunman Will Munny saying, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”
People of faith will appreciate the filmmaker’s approach in that it does call us to lament and think about what is happening in the land in which there are more guns per capita than in any other nation on earth. This is not a hopeful movie because its makers realize there are no quick and easy solutions, neither by those who believe that every citizen should be armed with a gun, nor those who think that banning all guns will solve the problem of violence. Any film that offers us the opportunity to reflect on this issue is well worth watching.
This film with a set of discussion questions is in the Feb 2016 issue of VP.