As far as I’m concerned no movie starring Fairuza Balk, David Thewlis, Amanda Plummer, Paul Sorvino, Chris Sarandon and seasoned veteran Robert Forster (in a role written specifically for the actor, a year before his Oscar-nominated “comeback” in JACKIE BROWN) can possibly be unworthy. 1997’s AMERICAN PERFEKT features all of those fine actors and is indeed a terrific film.
It was produced by the retired movie director Irvin Kershner (of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, THE EYES OF LAURA MARS and ROBOCOP 2), partially financed by the notorious indie movie packager Elie Samaha, and written and directed by the talented British upstart Paul Chart. For some unfathomable reason it’s never received the attention it deserves, and for years wasn’t even available on home video in the USA. You’re well advised to track down the DVD, even though that task is admittedly easier said than done.
Sandra is a discontented yuppie driving through the Nevada desert to pick up her flaky sister Alice—until she’s driven off the road by a nut in a station wagon. A passing motorist stops to help her out: its Jack Nyman, an eccentric shrink on a road trip who’s every turn, he’s determined, will be decided by the flip of a coin. But through an unfortunate chain of circumstances Sandra’s car gets towed away and she and Jack end up stranded. Their only hope is a guy in a station wagon—the very one who drove Sandra off the road!
The station wagon driver turns out to be a decent-seeming Englishman who drives Jack and Sandra to the nearest town. He tries to cheat Jack and Sandra out of their money, but is stopped by Jack, who makes a momentous decision: he’ll flip a coin and if it turns up heads he’ll kill the cheater. Heads it is…
The next day Jack meets Alice, Sandra’s estranged sister, in a bar—Sandra herself has disappeared. Alice decides to tag along with Jack, but they’re confronted by the dying Englishman, who expires in Alice’s arms. Jack doesn’t seem too ruffled by this. In fact he’s downright nonchalant, which makes Alice suspicious. She’s right to be concerned, especially since her sister’s corpse happens to be stuffed in the trunk of Jack’s car!
Like any good thriller it’s the twisty narrative that’s paramount here, and the best thing about Paul Chart’s direction is that he never allows it to get in the way of the story. His script is a marvel of invention, with a constantly mutating narrative that never takes an expected turn and shockingly discards some pivotal characters before the halfway point, while cunningly concealing its true antagonist until the final half hour. The screenplay is also daring in the way it, despite relating the story of a serial killer, doesn’t feature an onscreen killing until well into the second act. Somehow it all comes together into a disciplined and absorbing whole.
Credit goes to Chart’s skilled, craftsmanlike filmmaking, which keeps things lively and well paced. The acting is also top-notch, with the always excellent Robert Forster being the stand-out in a performance that’s by turns reassuring, eccentric and profoundly menacing. Forster also continues his penchant for full-frontal nudity (begun with his very first film appearance, in John Huston’s REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE, and continuing through the likes of MEDIUM COOL and HOLLYWOOD HARRY). Terrific film, but you have been warned…
Director: Paul Chart
Producer: Irvin Kershner
Screenplay: Paul Chart
Cinematography: William Wages
Editing: Michael Ruscico
Cast: Fairuza Balk, Robert Forster, Amanda Plummer, Paul Sorvino, David Thewlis, Geoffrey Lewis, Chris Sarandon, Joanna Gleason