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American Violence starts with what seems an obvious answer, naturally meant to skew our perceptions so the following story can unravel with more tension. What we see is an old man played with Bruce Dern-ish canterkerism by Bruce Dern. He’s sitting at his kitchen table complaining to his wife about the bland sandwich he’s being forced to eat because of what his doctor demands. That reaches an apex of sorts when quite suddenly, something rather horrific occurs.
We next meet Amanda Tyler (Denise Richards), a renowned psychologist and university lecturer interrupted in class by a man with a possibility. He wants her to look at the case of Jackson Shea (Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau), a man on death row to see if there is reason to stay his execution. She hesitates for the plot’s sake, and then of course, relents. Not long after, she’s in a poorly-lit cage sitting across from the slickly-haired, prison jumpsuit-wearing Shea, and she has only a short time in which to dig into his past and discover if his actions are the result of his up-bringing or that of a cold-blooded killer.
Directed by Timothy Woodward Jr., American Violence has a familiar if not intriguing premise that attempts to bring light to a terrible tragedy but does so with dismal results, with poor performances, direction, and a weak script. Starting with child molestation to petty crime to the call of true love, the film throws whatever it can to elicit some interest in explaining Shea’s eventual state of incarceration, but while all might have had some compelling pull in making this worthwhile, not one aspect of it is handled right, with many inspiring laughter rather than tension.
That begins with Lyman-Mersereau, who we last saw in the equally troubling Lost in the Pacific. As he over-acts his way through every scene, we see him in a variety of flashbacks and it’s nearly impossible to take him seriously as he narrates and pontificates on his past. It doesn’t help that the lines he’s reading aren’t exactly Tarantino-esque. Winner’s like “the only reason you’re still alive is that I haven’t killed you yet” are so badly written and delivered that they lack potential for both classic cheese or cult-status. But he’s not alone. Richards, who spends most of the film sitting in the cell in a series of reaction shots is herself unconvincing, and is unfortunately hollow as she delivers obvious dialogue.
Dern, the most curiously cast of the bunch, is in the film for only a blink or two, and we wonder how he even ended up involved, but others, like recent B-movie staple Michael Paré chews up what he can in his limited scenes, and earns more laughs, most likely unintentionally.
The issue is the astonishingly lack of creativity. American Violence might well have been called American Thief as it pretty much robs whatever it can from the genre to prop up its vanilla plot. From distracted security guards to arrogant crime bosses to a torture-interrogation scene, it’s a conveyor belt of generic-brand crime drama moments that feels like we should be checking off items on a list. And it’s made even more intolerable by a score that feels more like it should be from a Nicholas Spark‘s adaptation than a thriller.
American Violence might have started right and perhaps under different circumstances could have been something smarter, but as is, remains an almost unwatchable mess that misses the chance to be either a clever black comedy or a stylish drama, instead, a dull and uninteresting experience that is lifted only by the presence of Dern.
Movie description: American Violence is a 2017 drama about a psychologist interviewing a death row inmate, holding his fate in her hands.
Director(s): Timothy Woodward Jr.
Actor(s): Bruce Dern, Denise Richards, Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau
Genre: Crime, Drama