A black, deadpan, absurdist comedy, THE DELICATE ART OF THE RIFLE, loosely inspired by Charles Whitman's 1966 shooting spree at the University of Texas in Austin, is a film one might wish to experience just because it is so odd. Bear in mind, however, that "unusual" is not a synonym for
Guided by his rambling, stream of consciousness narration, the film follows dweebish Jay (David Grant) through an atypical afternoon on a college campus. Jay works backstage at the university theater, where on this afternoon the sororities are staging a combination production of "Hamlet" and a
fashion show. Noting the connection between Coca-Cola and initiative, Jay decides to buy some Coke. He ends up in the company of his computer science professor, Dr. Max Boaz (John Kessel), standing in the shadow of Foucault Tower. While Boaz regales Jay with his theories about the structure's
psychic resonance, everyone in sight--except Jay--is felled by rifle shots.
The gunman, Jay's roommate Walt Whitman (screenwriter Stephen Grant), calls for Jay to join him on the roof. Walt and Jay enjoys Cokes while the garrulous Walt explains that he comes from a long line of military marksmen and is only fulfilling his hereditary destiny with the sniper action. Its
impetus, Walt says, was the "erasing" by unknown forces of his girlfriend. Eventually, a SWAT team storms the roof and kills Walt. Weeks later, Jay remarks that no one ever mentions the incident, and it's as if it never occurred.
The theater is a metaphor for the mind. Artifice is brought to the foreground, and "the truth" is shrouded in darkness. In THE DELICATE ART OF THE RIFLE's overwritten script, the spotlight shines on crackpot observations and conspiracy theories, but for the most part these are just flotsam
obscuring the intriguing premise at the movie's core. This is a world in which all the women are pretty objects and all the men are like Jay--preoccupied with the action of virtual-reality computer games, but alienated from actual reality. The one notable exception is Walt. The only male skilled
at social interaction, he ends up on the roof with a gun.
The film fails to develop this interesting theme, instead placing emphasis on increasingly meaningless visual tangents. They begin as humorous asides (Jay's rumination on Coke and American vigor leads to an Iwo Jima re-creation with girls in bikinis), but ultimately they become visual non
sequitors (an astronaut brings Jay a Hostess cupcake). Surreal imagery for its own sake is fine if it's artful, but that is not the case here.
This low-budget, independent film is the first feature from a group of North Carolina filmmakers. If they continue to push envelopes, their debut may be re-evaluated as "promising." As it is, THE DELICATE ART OF THE RIFLE is like a "Hamlet" and fashion show production--an OK joke, but one that
goes on too long. The possibility exists, though, that the joke is so complex that its richness is accessible only to French structuralist philosophers. (Profanity, violence.)
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- Released: 1995
- Review: A black, deadpan, absurdist comedy, THE DELICATE ART OF THE RIFLE, loosely inspired by Charles Whitman's 1966 shooting spree at the University of Texas in Austin, is a film one might wish to experience just because it is so odd. Bear in mind, however, that… (more)