TRIESTE KELLY DUNN tends to aim for the lower belly. Three quick rounds from a 9mm, followed by two more that she takes her time with. The paper target, vaguely human shaped, snaps backwards at the bottom with each pull of the trigger. Dunn fires with confidence but also with something like boredom. She’s done this before, for higher stakes, and is now merely loaning her genial presence and bankable looks to this oddity of a SXSW publicity scheme. Namely, luring 15 film critics to Red’s Indoor Shooting Range to hobnob with the stars of festival darling Loves Her Gun — a film that deconstructs the trope of the gun-wielding superwoman, in which Dunn not only stars but is also very, very good.
I’m standing behind glass, three feet from Dunn, and can see the sureness with which she aligns her right index finger along the barrel, the smooth motion as she settles her shoulders, and her stance, which exudes a chutzpah that few of the journalists present can match. Several writers sheepishly admitted during the safety spiel that they had never fired weapons before; I felt both proud and fraudulent as I presented myself (in Texas, of all places) as a dabbler in guns. (I have fired a variety of them but only ever murdered a dozen or so ducks.) A few moments after Dunn unloads, my own 9mm is ready to go. I decide on four shots for the belly, à la Dunn, and then one to the solar plexus — just for bragging rights.
My stance is off, and my pistol drifts left. I land three bellybutton shots and some strays that could have punctured a love handle, depending on the assailant. As for the bull’s-eye, close is nice but doesn’t precisely cut it. I have acquitted myself without embarrassment — not a Dunnean performance, of course, but a respectable one. Dunn compliments my “spread.” A columnist from Filmmaker looks rather jealous.
At least four Geoffs are present (if we allow for orthographic variants), including a film distribution guru, a writer friend from my DC newspaper days, and Geoff Marslett himself, the Austin director behind Loves Her Gun. When I first met him, Marslett was squiring a small band of scribes from the Austin Convention Center in a little party bus, complete with a stripper pole that Marslett leaned against as he explained, with his signature energy and bounce, that we were headed to the very same shooting gallery where Dunn’s character, Allie, buys her own pistol in the film.
Allie is the center of Loves Her Gun; the film is keyed to her trauma, her seeking, the nervy prick of her skin. A Brooklynite with a deadbeat boyfriend, Allie is walking home alone one night when two men in gray suits and animal masks accost her, bloodying her face and knocking her to the ground, where they kick her until her back is a red and puckered mess. “You’re just lucky I didn’t want to fuck,” one brute spits through his mask before hoofing it. It is the unprocessed trauma of this night — the flashbacks always punctuated with an eerie thump — that drives Allie’s story, as she seeks salvation, though she’ll settle for refuge. And so she joins a charming but demure musician named Clark (Francisco Barreiro, a horror star in Mexico) and his Samurai-inflected hipster band on their way to — yes — Austin.
This abrupt relocation to Austin, the very morning after her attack, is Allie’s first means of trying to escape her demons through outward action. But Marslett plays the Austin thing neither too cute nor too on-the-nose for a film that enjoyed its world premiere at SXSW this week. The director mines various self-conscious New York–Austin comparisons for warm humor, and there’s a very witty Austin party scene that somehow smacks of both realism and send-up. “It’s a proven statistic that, like, 80 percent of people with a gun get shot,” says one hipster doofus, and soon a tipsy woman emerges from skinny-dipping to locate her pistol and fire it in the air. Now the regional politics of the film are in full swing: one girl calls the shooter a “crazy hick,” while Allie finds herself more than a little intrigued.
Allie drinks, takes over-the-counter sleep aids, and cozies up to Clark, while a besotted older gentleman who works at what looks like the Wheatsville Co-op offers her platonic yoga sessions in the beer aisle. But Allie recoils reflexively from these promising therapeutic options; just as she ran from New York, she flees Clark for the comfort of a warm gun. When she first shoots, Allie exudes a goose-pimpled sense of power and self-possession. More important, she can sleep for the first time in weeks. To spoil the film’s dénouement is not for me, nor is it even really possible in the case of this deft, 100-minute story that isn’t only about guns, but also about fickleness and flight, fear and friends. Marslett’s community of Austin hipsters is awfully well realized, the ensemble led by an irrepressible Ashley Spillers. Spillers plays Clark’s bandmate and best friend, except she’d rather be a little more, and all the faux-loopy bounce Spillers brings to the role emerges, later, as something rather like a means of self-protection.
Most impressive and daring than Allie’s feats of strength is that the whole production was unscripted, with nothing but a loose narrative arc and a bit of storyboarding to hold the film together. (“Geoff’s great advice was, ‘Don’t talk,’” Dunn said at a Q&A after the screening.) This speaks well for the cast, but especially well for Marslett, who has not only the vision but also the brass to put Loves Her Gun across. In keeping with the spontaneous dialogue, the overwhelming majority of bullets fired in the movie were real — live rounds that startle with a blunt and terrifying volume in a theater. (The rest were “wax projectile things,” as Dunn puts it. “Still scary.”) Critics who had attended the morning’s shoot-’em-up were primed to feel the visceral recoil of the gun in our hands, and these moments of sonic affront represent a masterpiece of narrative accompaniment. The traumatic thump punctuates each hard cut — the slam of a car door, the clank of Allie’s shovel against a rock.
To call Loves Her Gun a response to the Gabby Giffords shooting, the death of Trayvon Martin, or the bloodbaths in Aurora and Newtown is both misleading and perhaps cheapening. There is very little in the way of black-and-white politics in Marslett’s world. If anything, the moral is one of moderation. (The reckless brandishing of a gun proves salvific in at least one scene.) You can call out Marslett for hedging his bets if you like, but it’s a far wiser thing to read the film as a quest tale–slash–psychological drama: Marslett has no talking points, and Dunn and company play too well to be pigeonholed as allegories in a film à clef. (Marslett took the Louis Black “Lone Star” Award at this year’s festival.) I suppose what I’m suggesting is this: do see Loves Her Gun, and don’t go to a shooting range beforehand. (That is, unless you have the chance to watch a number of talented writers humiliate themselves.) Yes, the visceral power of a pistol mid-discharge is something singular on this earth. But the film isn’t about guns; it’s about people, and Marslett seems to know them rather well. Certainly he knows how to elicit unscripted scenes of bristling realism from talented, undersung actors. But he also knows that community is where the interesting stories, and maybe the solutions, lie — a notion that both Rick Santorum and Hillary Clinton could get behind.
At the firing range, producer Lauren Modery told me she keeps hearing “divergent” reactions from preview audiences. “Some people complain, ‘Wow, what a pro-gun movie,’” Modery said. “And others read it the completely opposite way.” Either political party would be hard-pressed to cull a political slogan from the anti-script of Loves Her Gun — which means Marslett has done precisely his job.