Coburn plays Martin Tillman, whose daughter Penny (Virginia Masden) is killed in a shooting. Martin, an infantry veteran of the Second World War, experiences vivid memories of combat and his youth - notably his meeting and early romance with his wife Anne (Barbara Bain, a face familiar from re-runs of TV's original Mission: Impossible) as well as the traumatic killing of a young sniper who shot his friend. At the same time Martin seeks to re establish contact with Penny's estranged daughter (Alexandra Holden) who, after blaming her mother for her father's desertion, has disappeared.
Martin's grief over loss, and one-man odyssey to find the owner of the gun that killed his daughter is what lies at the centre of the film. Elderly, and with his knuckles visibly distorted by arthritis, Coburn still has an undeniable screen presence, raising the film out of the ordinary, and gives a quiet authority which adds necessary gravitas to his search. Despite being predicated around a violent act, American Gun is a relatively subdued film, making points about weapon ownership, responsibility and guilt in persistent ways that, understandably, caused some irritation amongst gun-owning filmgoers at home. It also had the bad luck to be made as a change of administration, and then the events of September 11th, marked a sea change in American attitudes to arms. It is doubtful that a film, which plays so much on the social question of weaponry, would be made today.
Besides some wintry settings, there is an excellent score, the work of the underrated Anthony Marinelli, which enhances much of the film's tone. Marinelli's spare note clusters, floating in dead air as it were, emphasise the silence and loss in lives touched by the gun. They suggest how much grief isolates the central character from all but the most essential relationships, where he can only really communicate by writing letters to a dead woman. The epistolary nature of many of Martin's scenes, as well as the distancing effect of his flashbacks, remove him further from daily life and place him further in his self-absorbed quest. ("He's on a crusade," despairs his wife at one point.) Martin's dedication to his search is also counter-pointed by a crisis in faith: "I still believe in God," he says during a glum meeting with a young pastor, "but I don't know what to make of him." Given the nature of Martin's grief, the churchman understandably finds it hard to offer more than passing support.
American Gun is apt title. It refers both to a weapon, as well as the name of the company manufacturing the offending item (Its factory of the same name is the first place Martin visits). Like something aimed and fired itself, Martin's single-minded journey transcribes its own trajectory, until it reaches its mark. Along the way we discover the gun's history: as an instrument of death in the hand of an abduction victim, a means of revenge for a jealous youth, and so on. The gun has taken more than one life and, the film suggests, is typical of such items passing through so many hands. Whether or not one takes this simplification at face value is down to the position held on gun control. Meanwhile the film benefits from an avoidance of hectoring, and a script that demonstrates the casual dissemination of small arms, as well as the numbing effects of their misuse.
Jacob's film recalls the similar premise explored in John Badham's The Gun (1974), an above average TV movie in which another firearm was followed from cradle to grave, although here the irony is of another sort. In Badham's film the piece is only fired once (at the end) for instance, while Jacob's weapon is used several times. American Gun also has a more complicated structure, the filmmakers using a combination of narrative and filmic methods to show the effects of gun violence on individuals. It is also has a clever twist in the tale, one which accords the hero greater tragic status as well as forcing us to reinterpret events. This ending, while the film still tends towards the episodic, reaffirms Martin's central role and allows the peculiarly penitential nature of his quest to be explained.
There's nothing about the film that wouldn't sit just as comfortably on the little screen as on the big, but it rarely drags and sustains interest. Those who seek the dynamism of most films explicitly associated with weaponry will be advised to look for thrills elsewhere. Those who'd enjoy a quiet, well made look at a perceived American blight, as well as those wanting a last glimpse of a memorable Hollywood star still at work, should check this out.