Much as I enjoy, respect and admire the work of Tony Garnett I was a bit hesitant to watch Hangun, the film he wrote, produced and directed in America in the early 80s. I don't know why, as he loses none of his power, skills or critical perceptions filming in the US and proves the old adage that it sometimes takes an outsider to understand a situation properly.
Whilst Handgun is ostensibly a rape/revenge thriller, it is also about the controversial, liberal gun laws of the US (still sadly a terribly hot topic) and the macho male identity the state of Texas possesses, with a principal male character clearly believing that violence is a right to him - both in the ability to carry a weapon and use it recreationally, and in terms of his sexual identity and pursuit of the opposite sex.
Tony Garnett on the set of Handgun with star, Karen Young
Karen Young stars as Kathleen Sullivan, a timid, happy young schoolteacher from Boston who accepts a position at a school in Texas, and catches the eye of Larry (Clayton Day) a gun aficionado. Larry may be young and he may dress hip in accordance of the fashions of the day, but he quickly proves to be an unreconstructed alpha male; he is proud of his Texas roots and hankers after the golden age of male role models such as John Wayne, instead of the film stars of today, the likes of which he brands as ''faggots''.
Having only recently come out of a relationship, Kathleen may be attracted to Larry but she has no intention of entering into anything more serious with him than simple friendship. This rebuttal comes to light back at Larry's after a date, and he quickly proves completely unable to tolerate such a sexual rebuff. He makes it clear that he believes he is due intercourse with her as his male prerogative and, as such, he proceeds to rape her, virtually at gunpoint, twice.
"I feel sorry about how things got outta hand back there", he says after the first assault - which Garnett keeps a respectful distance from. "But its partly your fault for being so irresistible" he concludes, proving to us that Larry clearly sees no problem with, and has no guilt over, what he has just done - indeed he believes Kathleen's unwillingness to have sex with him signifies a frigidity or psychological fault she needs to address. He even suggests she seeks professional help for it!
Kathleen attempts to report Larry to the police but she finds that the authorities are completely ineffectual in the case and that, overall in such instances, the law is stacked in favour of the man/perpetrator. Consumed by an understandable rage and, with a desire to get revenge upon the man who violated her, Kathleen comes to the conclusion that she must take matters into her own hands. She cuts her hair short and begins to take an interest in guns for herself, joining a gun club and purchasing weapons.
What follows is an uncompromising, documentary-like look at America’s freely accessible, liberal gun laws and its almost sexualised, fetishistic and paranoid hand gun culture, shown through the eyes of the traumatised rape victim, Kathleen. Like Garnett's previous film, Prostitute, you could be mistaken for thinking you were watching a piece of reportage rather than a film. Certainly this is not your standard exploitation revenge thriller that Hollywood regularly churns out, especially in this era when video nasties like I Spit On Your Grave were rife, and that's in part because Garnett - as he often did - used a mix of professional, though unknown, actors and non-professionals in key roles and operated right at the apex of contemporary social issues. With this cinema-verite style, he upholds the traditions of the utterly authentic, socially aware films he produced with Ken Loach in Britain during the '60s and '70s.
Handgun has an authenticity and a gravitas you simply will not find in the likes of the aforementioned and much better known I Spit On Your Grave. Whilst it cover similar ground, Garnett is far more interested in presenting the downward spiral into physical and mental breakdown that victims of a sexual assault experience than he is with the tropes of the rape/revenge thriller. The desire to get closure, to take control of their lives once more is key here and its explored realistically and believably even when Garnett takes it to its all too logical, sympathetic extreme.
Karen Young gives a bravura performance as Kathleen, utterly convincing in every facet of her character, from sweet natured innocent, to tragic victim to ruthless, hardened seeker of revenge. Remarkably, this was her first film and it's a truly stunning debut showcasing great talent and range - it's easy to see why she's remained steadily in work ever since, even though she has never attained major star status.
Want to know why you may not have ever heard of Handgun or why it didn't set Young on the road to stardom? Well, you have to blame Clint Eastwood I'm afraid. Eastwood's Diry Harry film Sudden Impact was coming out around the same time as Garnett's film and it explored a similar story of a rape victim out for revenge. Warner Brothers offered a distribution deal for the film with Garnett which he accepted, whereupon the company - eager to ensure top drawer star Eastwood's film got a smooth passage - promptly sat on Handgun, releasing it only to a few select cinemas in New York and with no marketing whatsoever.
Cheers Clint! Sudden Impact was shit, this isn't. This has more in common with Bowling for Columbine than it does with any of its then contemporary genre rivals.