The socially-conscious film producer’s uncomfortable take on US gun culture and the rape-revenge movie.
Tony Garnett’s 1982 film Handgun – also known as Deep in the Heart – is something of a curiosity. Garnett is someone still best known as the producer of furious polemics from the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, often as part of the BBC’s agitprop drama brands like The Wednesday Play and Play for Today. But unlike those two filmmakers – who have long shown disdain for ‘commercial’ cinema from their ivory towers and who are very much the epitome of champagne socialists – Garnett has tended to mix his work between the bleakly political and the wildly, even exploitatively commercial – sometimes within the same film. He is, after all, a producer whose career takes in both Kes and Earth Girls Are Easy. It’s a career that is wildly eclectic – his next film after Handgun was Follow That Bird, the Sesame Street Big Bird movie, and even in the late 1960s, his work included educational documentary The Body (the film that features the Roger Waters/Ron Geesin soundtrack) and an involvement the Itaslian proto-giallo The Sweet Body of Deborah. He was rather more open-minded, it would seem, than Leigh and Loach, but still came from a very similar midset. His 1980 directorial debut Prostitute is a Loachesque attack on the sex work industry and the culture surrounding it, yet also manages to be leeringly sexual itself – a somewhat hypocritical stance you might think, though the film’s defenders have long argued that the sexual content of the film is a trojan horse, used to push the message to those who might otherwise not see it, which some of us might see as a touch condescending (funnily enough, no one shows quite as much contempt for the working-class viewer as those leftist directors making films that supposedly reflect their miserable existences) and hypocritical. Prostitute is an interesting film, but it ultimately feels rather reactionary, the work of someone who has locked into the very sex-negative side of Radical Feminism, and also has the whiff of white-knighting and class contempt about it. Handgun – Garnett’s first ‘American’ film (in fact a British production) is similarly keen to have its cake and eat it. This is an odd mixture of dour, documentary-style left-wing cinema and rape-revenge exploitation cinema, a film that sits uneasily between two stools, not quite working as either, yet still worthwhile when taken on its own merits.
Karen Young is shy schoolteacher Kathleen, recently moved from Boston to Dallas, where gun culture is king. She meets Larry (Clayton Day), self-assured lawyer and gun collector, at a party and he’s soon actively pursuing her. She doesn’t seem keen, partly because she’s just come out of a relationship and partly because she simply doesn’t seem to like the brash and slimy guy very much. It’s odd then that she keeps agreeing to go out with him – an early point where the film doesn’t really convince. But she does, and after one date, Larry won’t take no for an answer and rapes her in a genuinely uncomfortable scene – while the actual rape is off-screen, the sexual assault that leads to it, the casually brutal force and the humiliation are all shown in grim detail.
But this isn’t some sort of Last House on the Left/I Spit on Your Grave violent stranger attack. As is made clear, Larry doesn’t even consider what he’s done as rape – in fact, he thinks he’s somehow helping her get over her sexual repression. When she finally gets out of his apartment and goes to the police, Kathleen is faced with the uncomfortable truth – that no jury is going to convict him on the evidence available, with the fact she spent the night, had sex with him twice – however unwillingly she might claim it was – and then was allowed to leave all reducing the case to ‘he said/she said’ legally and likely to make the jury see her as a woman scorned.
Traumatised by both the rape and the lack of justice, Kathleen cuts off her hair, joins a gun club and starts to make plans for revenge. Once proficient with a gun, she lures Larry to a shooting range and begins to stalk him…
Rape-revenge films are always problematic. It’s not just the often-exploitative nature of the ‘rape’ part, but the implications of the ‘revenge’ that are difficult. While the best films in the genre (such as the two previously mentioned) make it clear that the act of revenge is not, ultimately, satisfying but instead part of a dehumanising process that will leave the vengeance-crazed victim broken and empty, it’s all too easy for a film to suggest that murder really is a legitimate answer to rape – that an eye for an eye, or more accurately a life for an eye, is acceptable. Certainly, the ‘progressive’ rape-revenge film is very popular today – look at Promising Young Woman and a bunch of other movies where critics have often cheered on the central character’s vigilante justice because the films frame it as justified, something they might not be as keen to do with more reactionary – but essentially morally equivalent – vigilante cinema. We should, perhaps, be very cautious about celebrating violent and murderous revenge, not only because of the moral questions about how it dehumanises the person carrying it out and makes them no better than the monsters that they are punishing, but also because it opens up very uncomfortable questions about when such acts are justified – especially if that revenge is aimed at general groups rather than specific individuals. I’m not sure you can cheer on Thana in Ms .45 and then condemn Paul Kersey in Death Wish. Handgun comes very close to positioning Kathleen as a heroic figure – without wanting to give too much away, she is shown as somehow regaining her life by her actions, even if they are ultimately not as extreme as in most films of this sort. Vigilante cinema is unquestionably cathartic and enjoyable to watch, but it ultimately sends out a dubious message, and wrapping it in radical feminist rhetoric doesn’t change that.
Perhaps for Garnett, the vigilante aspect of the story was made more palatable by the more subtle – but ultimately more pervasive – theme of the film, a somewhat unsubtle attack on Texan (and American) gun culture. It’s often said that the uncomfortable truths about our society are best explored through the eyes of an outsider, and in this film the ease with which Americans can buy guns and their omnipresence in American culture, are seen from a very British perspective. I suspect that even the most anti-gun Americans have no real understanding about just how weird their gun culture looks to much of the world. This is, of course, a 1982 gun culture that was even more laissez faire than it is now, and the film hammers home just how much of a social problem this is. The broader narrative, however, seems to have a rather more ambiguous attitude – as with the ‘revenge’ aspect, the film seems to be pulling in two directions, unsure about quite where it stands. Guns are not involved in Kathleen’s rape, except in the most trivial of ways (Larry waves a gun about, but he’s already attacked and assaulted her by that point) but they do allow her to take her revenge – a society that had more restrictions on just who can buy guns is also a society that will leave Kathleen more of a victim in the long run. As critiques of gun culture go, it’s surprisingly low level, even though this does seem to be the thing – more than machismo, sexual violence and the justice system – that Garnett is most concerned with.
Mostly shot with documentary realism, Handgun benefits from strong performances – Young conveys a lot with a simple nervous twitch and retrained emotions, Day is chilling as the smug bastard who not only fails to accept his crime but actually thinks he can carry on a relationship with the woman afterwards – and Garnett shows an ability to combine the dour nature of politically inspired film making with a commercial edge; the final vengeance scenes are as moody and dramatic as any thriller. He also manages to push his agenda without ever seeming quite as stridently preachy and pompous as filmmakers like Loach. Handgun is a Message Movie, but it never forgets that it needs to entertain an audience to get that message across.
This was Garnett’s last film as director – perhaps it wasn’t his comfort zone. Indeed, his film career would be over by the end of the 1980s and he returned to where he perhaps felt most at home, on British television. Curiously, the TV series that he was in charge of – Cardiac Arrest, Between the Lines, Ballykissangel, The Cops and the bafflingly popular This Life – all seemed pretty generic, a mix of medical and police dramas and soap operas. It’s likely that this was all that was being commissioned by an increasingly unadventurous BBC, and in 2009 Garnett raged against the system in a widely circulated email. Notably, he never made another film or TV series after this.