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Friday, February 23, 2024

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Film Festival

‘Good Guy With A Gun’ is a shallow parable but compelling drama

In case you couldn’t tell by the title, “Good Guy With A Gun” is a story about guns and whether people should use them. The story centers around Will (Beck Nolan), a teenager from Chicago whose unarmed father is fatally shot while trying to prevent a robbery. Will and his mother, Tessa (Tiffany Bedwell), soon take a trip to rural Illinois, where guns are just as abundant as beer — both of which the locals have no issue selling to teenagers. 

In an effort to fit in, Will begins visiting shooting ranges with other local teens and finds he has a surprising knack for it. His newfound friendships — as well as the drama that arises when he gets involved with the wrong, trigger-happy crowd — cause him to question both his beliefs on gun ownership and his values at large.

Writer-director John Mossman, a gun owner himself, said in a Q&A after the festival screening that his film responds to the lack of nuanced discussion in the United States surrounding guns. He argued that today, there is a tendency toward extremes wherein a gun is either something to be avoided at all costs or a “golden calf” that is fetishized to the point of worship. The film’s primary goal is to examine the personal effects of gun ownership and to challenge preconceptions on both sides of the debate.

In some ways, the film succeeds in its nuanced presentation of guns. Considering that the gun debate has become such a hot-button political issue, what surprised me most was the lack of politics in “Good Guy With A Gun.” Save a scene or two where “lib” is thrown around as an insult of the highest order, characters’ political beliefs remain largely implied.

Mossman focuses instead on guns as an ideology, delving into the mindset that begets a gun fascination. Blood runs hot in this small town, and guns are a vehicle for controlled emotional expression and social connection. Shooting at a wooden target or a beer can on a Saturday afternoon is presented as, at least theoretically, a healthy way to self-actualize and blow off some steam. There’s also the sense of power that comes with knowing you can defend yourself if everything goes to hell.

The problem is when these hot-blooded people want to shoot more than just beer cans. Mossman personally draws a line between circular targets and human-shaped outlines or worse — and when characters in the film cross that line, consequences ensue. The unfortunate truth, as Will soon learns, is that the people who need to stay on the safe side of that line the most are rarely inclined to do so.

However, the film’s strengths lie more in its representations than its implications. While “Good Guy With A Gun” succeeds in its portrayal of gun psychology and refrains from being too preachy, it doesn’t leave the audience with anything of any weight to ponder. 

I didn’t feel that my preconceptions were challenged or new questions were raised. The ultimate message was essentially that guns aren’t unilaterally bad but can be dangerous, but it might be more dangerous to take them away. The title also seems to be a bit of a misnomer, as the film focuses primarily on the offensive capabilities of guns rather than the defensive side.

It’s easy to forget, however, that this is not just a message but a movie, and it works well as the latter.

The film is anchored in a solid coming-of-age story that touches on themes of grief, masculinity and self-expression. The direction is confident and consistent, and the rural setting feels realistic and lived-in as opposed to a comical “Gun Country, USA.” The performances are superb; leads Nolan and Bedwell are definitely worth keeping an eye on.

If “Good Guy With A Gun” was presented less as a social problem film, there’s a good chance I would have enjoyed it more, as there’s a lot to appreciate in Mossman’s latest work. As it stands, though, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed, and that the screenplay could be improved by sharpening the dialogue and the commentary. 

What stuck with me most was not anything in the film but a quote Mossman shared afterward from an online pro-gun message board: “It’s not about hunting, and you know it.”

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Grade: B-

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