Posted: 09/20/2000

 

American Perfekt

(1997)

by Del Harvey



Director/screenwriter Paul Chart gives us something fun, and dark, and twisted, to watch.


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Following the popularity of Pulp Fiction there were released a number of lesser copycats. Three years later, another quirky noir thriller by the name of American Perfekt was released. In a very complimentary sense, American Perfekt fits the copycat category. However, I just watched this film for the first time, and although the story and the characters are undoubtedly derivative, there is a certain charm to this little-seen treasure that urges me to promote it.

Very much in the manner of Pulp Fiction, American Perfekt is a story of the seamier side of life. It is something more than the dark-yet-happy-go-lucky piecing together of vignettes that was Pulp Fiction. There is a twisted psychology at work here that surpasses the other film in many ways. For in this film, no matter what we think we know from the story we are shown, no matter how closely these events may resemble things that seem perfectly founded in a bedrock of truth, there is always something just slightly off-tilt to everything and everyone.

In the role of Jake, a psychologist on a Southwestern vacation, Robert Forster turns in an exceptionally riveting performance. His character is the thread that carries the story through each turn, bouncing one eccentric cast member off the next in a subtly exotic danse macabre along life’s dusty highway. Forster (Jackie Brown, Medium Cool, Reflections In A Golden Eye), is great fun to watch. His tough guy features are deceived by his gentle voice and puppydog’s eyes. I hope he had as much fun making this film as I imagine.

The story begins with Jake slamming into Sandra’s (Amanda Plummer—The Fisher King, The Prophecy) car after she has pulled back onto the highway without looking. After avoiding one near-fatal crash she almost causes another. That is the way of American Perfekt, trading a blessing in exchange for a curse. Jake’s character believes so much in chance that he carries his lucky quarter around and takes every opportunity to use it to decide some very important decisions in life. As Jake helps Sandra from her car, we are introduced to what we believe are two decent, normal human beings. Soon we discover there is a killer on the road, in pursuit of Sandra, and then the bodies begin to pile up.

And as we traverse this cruel highway, the layers are peeled from each character, revealing another hidden part of their whole. The more complex the character, the more layers there are to unravel.

The story and direction are by Paul Chart, and both are extremely well constructed and executed. (Side note: Mr. Chart has gathered Forster, Thewlis, Balk, and Sarandon for his upcoming Great Sex.) The film is a sort of obtuse cat and mouse game, with the roles of each transposing from one set of characters to another, throughout. As the plotline is hung on the framework of a road movie, the trip does eventually come to an end, and the roles of cat and mouse do settle onto at least two pairs of characters. Unlike many films of this genre, I found the ending to be entirely satisfying and a little surprising.

The supporting cast is perfect, for once. Fairuza Balk (Gas Food Lodging, Valmont, American History X) is really a co-star as Plummer’s younger sister Alice, a young woman whose only life is the road, and thus a perfect reflection of the nomadic, constantly changing American way of life. Amanda Plummer’s performance is better than any she has given before, surpassing even the dreamy sprite of The Fisher King. David Thewlis (Naked, The Island Of Dr. Moreau, tv’s Prime Suspect 3) is perfectly sleazy as the traveling con artist Santini. Joanna Gleason (tv’s Temporarily Yours) is very funny as the drunk girl in the bar. And Paul Sorvino (Bulworth, Goodfellas, tv’s Law & Order) and Chris Sarandon (Child’s Play, Fright Night) are the perfect pair of bumbling local cops trying to sort out the whole mess.

The music, by Simon Boswell underscores the delicate line between what is and what isn’t, and how much chance has to do with that truth. The cinematography, by William Wages, is graphic and unsentimental, which is perfect for this story.

As a metaphor for all the ugliness that contributes as much to a society as all the things that are good and appealing, American Perfekt is, well, do I have to say it?

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly and lives in Chicago. He is a survivor of Lucasfilm, The Walt Disney Company, and The Directors Guild Of America.



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