FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Paul Chart's remarkably assured directorial debut is a thriller-slash-road movie (and I do mean slash) that wears its familiar elements proudly on its sleeve.
Now making the festival circuit, it stars Robert Forster -- due to receive a major career infusion with the release of Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" -- so a commercial release will probably be forthcoming.
Produced by veteran director Irvin Kershner, "American Perfekt" was one of the most popular and acclaimed films at this year's Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.
Forster plays Jake Nyman, a vacationing criminal psychologist wandering around the highways of the American Southwest. Jake forgoes the pressures of responsibility by living his life by chance; faced with any kind of decision, he flips the coin in his pocket and lets fate decide.
The film's complicated chain of events is set in motion when Jake gives a ride to Sandra (Amanda Plummer), a young woman who was nearly run off the road by a car driven by an unknown assailant. Sandra, en route to picking up her wayward sister Alice (Fairuza Balk), is clearly turned on by ever-cool Jake, who barely seems to acknowledge her attentions.
The driver of the malicious vehicle turns out to be Santini, a small-time con man (played with enormous relish by David Thewlis). The trio eventually sits down to a meal together, but Jake, after fending off the attentions of a drugged-out local floozy (Joanna Gleason), takes great umbrage at Santini's conning of a buffoonish local cop (Chris Sarandon). It isn't long before the floozy winds up dead, Santini turns up with his tongue cut out and Sandra lands in the trunk of Jake's car. Jake, it seems, is a criminal psychologist who's both a criminal and a psycho. The last part of the film depicts the cat-and-mouse game between Jake and the plucky Alice as Jake is pursued by the savvy local sheriff (Paul Sorvino).
Chart's complex screenplay is most interesting in its first half, as it keeps us off-guard with its quietly menacing series of surprises and revelations. If the film's pacing is a bit slow, it's still a relief to encounter a thriller more intent on mystery and atmosphere than random shocks. Some of that originality dissipates in the more conventional, bloody second part, but by this point the filmmaker has already demonstrated his talent for concocting original situations, quirky dialogue and sharp, off-kilter characterizations.
The film's power is increased immeasurably by the superb cast, which gives the appearance of having a great deal of fun. Forster is wonderfully subtle and controlled for most of the film, which makes his final, over-the-top rampage that much more entertaining. The made-to-order role is a reminder of how much we've missed with his lengthy absence from the screen.
Plummer invests her neurotic character with a twitchy lovability, while Thewlis is highly entertaining in his broadly comic turn. He slaps Plummer at one point, and the gusto with which he did so brought down the house. And his lengthy death scene is the best since the silent-movie days. Balk makes a feisty heroine, and Sorvino is fun as the tenacious sheriff.
Tech credits are way-above-average for an indie feature, with superb lensing of the dusty Southwest by cinematographer William Wages and tense editing by Michael Ruscio.
Director-screenwriter: Paul Chart
Producer: Irvin Kershner
Co-producers: Dawn Handler, Andrew Schuth
Director of photography: William Wages
Editor: Michael Ruscio
Music: Simon Boswell
Sandra: Amanda Plummer
Jake: Robert Forster
Santini: David Thewlis
Alice: Fairuza Balk
Frank: Paul Sorvino
Shirley: Joanna Gleason
Running time -- 99 minutes
No MPAA rating
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