Garnett is one of the most respected and celebrated British filmmakers of his
generation having worked extensively in British television and through his work
with critically acclaimed filmmakers such as Ken Loach, whom the pair worked
together on the seminal British dramas Kes (1969) and Cathy Come Home (1966),
both of which Garnett produced. Opting to move away from producing, Garnett set
his sights on writing and directing his own feature films. After directing the
critically acclaimed drama Prostitute (1980), Garnett went on to the write and
direct the film Handgun (1983), a powerful cult rape and revenge thriller.
Eschewing the exploitation motifs as explored in the genre titles such as Death
Wish (1974), Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978), favouring
an art-house aesthetic and employing a docudrama stylistic approach, Garnett’s
film is a measured exploration of the nature of injustice and retribution while
a searing indictment of American gun culture and rape.
in Dallas, when young high school teacher Kathleen spurns the advances of
arrogant lawyer Larry, he coerces her to his apartment where he rapes her at
gunpoint, raping her a second time for good measure. Violated not only by
Larry, Kathleen is further violated by the authorities who do little to bring
the sexual predator Larry to justice. Enraged, Kathleen eradicates any form of
femininity by cropping her hair and donning army fatigues, while undergoing
firearm training, before taking the law into her own hands by luring Larry out
in the dead of night to administer her own brand of rough justice (it should be
noted that the ending will leave viewers divided, especially those expecting a
more violent denouement to the film). In this feminist vigilant film, Kathleen
is forced into this path when all around her fail her, while Larry is painted
as a bigoted, misogynistic, and racist bully, who believes his wealth and power
entitles him to anything, and this power can be derived through violence. This
is expertly shown prior to the harrowing rape scene when Garnett cuts to a
scene of Larry indulging in the high life with his equally grotesque pals,
before attending a “Foxy Boxing” match, where the all-female fighters fight
bra-less in an arena while the scummy patrons holler from the side lines and
try to grope the fighters as they walk by. It is an important point in the film
because it comes just prior to the rape sequence as Garnett is critiquing male
machismo and a sexist view of women. In a sense, with the bra-less boxers fighting
in the ring, we see that in Larry’s world sexualized violence is acceptable. In
this sequence Garnett attempts to show how this attitude and perception of women
leads him to violate Kathleen. The rape scene that follows is harrowing, yet
not overtly explicit. While the rape is shocking, especially as we see Kathleen
forced to strip at gunpoint, before being sexually violated, the most sickening
part is the attitude of Larry post-rape, where he administers blame on her for
being frigid. He sees nothing wrong in his actions, which makes it even more
satisfying when the pent up fury of Kathleen explodes as she goes hunting her
prey at the gun club where she has honed her sharpshooting skills.
expecting a film seeped in violence will be disappointed. This is a slow,
methodical and intelligent film shot in long, natural takes that make it seem
like a documentary at times, with standout performances by Karen Young as
Kathleen and Clayton Day as Larry. In October 2016, I was fortunate to interview
Garnett about his memories working on the film [note: spoilers alert].
Edwards:Your cult thriller Handgun is one of the more intelligent films that
emerged in the 70s/80s in the rape and revenge genre. Where did the inspiration
come from to make the film? Were you trying to bring attention to the
“date-rape” crisis that was afflicting American society and the failure to
prosecute the persecutors of the crimes?
Garnett: I was in America trying to understand it. Having been brought up
during the war, my idea of America was of GI’s giving me gum, Hollywood action
movies and glossy TV. My reading of its history and troubled present offered me
a different picture. I was particularly interested to see how Americans tended
to settle arguments by shooting each other. Why? I also saw the relationship
between rape and guns—in my view, rape is about violence more than about sex.
It is about power and control. So I went to Dallas—so resonant in all our minds
with violence, I even began the film with shots of Dealey Plaza, the infamous
West End district of Dallas where J.F Kennedy was assassinated. Research over
many months gradually produced a story. I have always researched and allowed
characters to emerge from it and then they, under interrogation, tell me a
did you set about writing/researching the film and securing finance for the
film? I understand that EMI stepped on board to get the film into production.
budget was small, around $3m, and my agent Harry Ufland set it up at EMI
without difficulty. I had no interference from them, until the rough cut and
then everyone wanted to “improve” the film. The problem was that I had made a
slow, thoughtful, and I hope considered character study, and they were
expecting a commercial hit—an action movie with some sexy rape scenes. I hadn’t
delivered. Some of the distributors were disappointed as they considered the
rape scenes a turn off and not sexy! I had to cut elements from the film that I
now regret. I also regret selling the film to Warner Brothers, instead of
Goldwyn, who were a small art house distributor. They were producing a Clint
Eastwood rape and revenge film. They didn’t want the competition so they bought
mine, sat on it, and opened it in a few theatres before pulling the film. It
was a failure. I was naïve. I wish I had gone with Goldwyn. They would have
been more sympathetic to the film.
did you opt to set the film in Texas? Was it their frontier attitude and
obsession with guns that prompted this?
has a frontier attitude, there are more guns there than people and the attitude
to women tends to be courtly even as they’re commodified. I had to choose
somewhere and could have set it anywhere, in truth. But Dallas seemed right at
how did you approach the visual style of the film? For me, the film is a fine
blend of action mixed with a naturalistic documentary sensibility.
style of the film was approached in exactly the same way my colleagues and I had
been developing for decades while working in small British films, many at the
BBC. I took Charles Stewart as Director of Photography and Bill Shapter as Editor,
who I’d worked with many times as producer and director. I spent many months
doing improvisations with actors, none of them known. I found Karen in New York
and the actors who play her parents in Boston; the rest of the cast I found in
Dallas. Some, like those at the gun club and in the gun shop, were just there
and non-professional actors. We allowed the actors freedom, no marks, the
camera has to follow them; they don’t exist for the camera and the lighting.
Our aim was to never to allow a line if it felt as though a writer has written
it; I wanted to abolish “acting” acting and “directing” directing as I wanted
the technique to be invisible so that all you see is a character in a
circumstance and the audience is eavesdropping on the action.
casting of Karen Young as Kathleen Sullivan was brilliant as she delivers a
highly believable performance of an innocent young girl pushed over the edge
into vengeance. How did you come to cast her in the role and were you pleased
with her performance in the film?
was excellent. A very talented young woman. She never flinched when going through Karen’s
journey especially as she had many arduous emotional scenes during the shooting
I felt Clayton Day was equally good in his role as lawyer and gun collector Larry Keeler. How did he become attached to the film?
Clayton was from a small town near Dallas and had been to Yale, so he brought both sensibilities to the role. Larry was a member of the gun club where we shot the scenes in the film. We asked the owner if he would give Karen some advice on how to use a firearm. We just filmed it and that’s what you see in the film.
One of the clever elements that you employ in the film is that you subtly break down the air of respectability that Larry projects of himself and to others—or that of a “gentlemen” as he defines himself. I particularly liked the way you broke this down, first with the shots of him leering at the cheerleaders’ thighs and panties and then when out drinking with his lawyer buddies where they end up at the “Foxy Boxing” ring. In a sense you paint a picture of a man (and those in the audience/buddies) that women are merely an object for his gratification. You also show that he is man of questionable morals and with antiquated prejudices. Was this your intention?
It seems to me important to set up Larry’s character as an educated, courtly man who was still, beneath the gentlemanly manner seeing women as objects, as his right to possess and who is secure in his own attractiveness. Donald Trump if you will!!
The rape sequence of Kathleen is particularly harrowing and shocking as it seems so scarily realistic in how she is forced into having intercourse with Larry at gunpoint. How did you approach the filming of this scene and how did you set about directing Karen Young and Clayton Day in what is the central part of the film? Did Karen Young have any reservations about performing in such a difficult scene?
The rape scenes were carefully worked out with Charles, on camera. The actors were given only a rough set of moves and script to guide them through it. I left the room and left Charles, 35mm Arriflex on his shoulder, to follow what happened. No rape was simulated. We faded down just before and up just after, on both occasions. I needed him to rape her twice to show how oblivious, how out of touch he was, with her feelings. For him it wasn’t a good fuck because she was inhibited!
Post-rape Kathleen adopts a new masculine image of cropped hair, combat gear, purchasing a handgun before undergoing a sharpshooting training programme so that she can get even with Larry. For me, it is interesting to see how society and injustice pushes her to the extreme lengths she ultimately resorts to gain control over her life again and how she sheds any form of femininity. How did the transformation from sweet Irish Catholic girl to a gun-toting femme fatale play with audiences and critics at the time?
Before I cast her I described to Karen what would happen to her character and how we would do it. Plus I said she would have her long hair cut short on camera. This was against my rules. No character was shown any script beyond the next day’s filming. In real life we have hopes about the future, but we don’t know what it will bring. But in this case I thought there was an ethical imperative.
One of the most terrifying elements of the film is that we not only see Kathleen violated sexually, but then she is violated by the authorities—including the police and the church— who allow the perpetrator to get away with his crimes. What is made worse is that authorities and Larry subject Kathleen to psychological abuse whereby she is made out to be the guilty party and that she is responsible for her own rape. I thought this was expertly handled and reflective of how rape victims are treated. Did you use this as the springboard to kick-start her descent into vigilantism as she administers rough justice on Larry?
I wanted to explore how someone deals with anger and injustice when the crime against her is not punished and there is no closure. It was perfectly reasonable to assume he would not be prosecuted, as the sympathetic cop explains. The priest had his own ethical framework. And so on. So does she live with this anger and wish for revenge, it eating her out for ever, or does she right the wrong herself? She could not rape Larry in revenge. If she killed him she would have to live the rest of her with a murderer on her conscious. She is a good Catholic woman.
The film seems to be a tragic exploration of the dangers of gun culture and how guns can be used to solve social problems and disputes. You seem to be asking the audience as to whether Kathleen is justified in the course of action that she takes on her rapist. Was that your intention?
So she makes him suffer the same fear he made her suffer, to be humiliated as he loses a Western shoot out and as he loses consciousness he knows he is dying. Then he wakes up in hospital being told what happened, which is humiliating. But not as humiliating as explaining to the waiting press how a respected lawyer could be found unconscious on the steps of the courthouse, shot by a gun used to shoot animals without killing them. Who did that and why? He won’t be able to answer truthfully, but will still be an object of ridicule. For her, she will never forget, but she has taken the sting out of the hurt. She can now move on in her life.
As a British national, when writing the script did you have any reservations about tackling the gun control element of the film especially as Americans see it as a constitutional right to own firearms and that they can be passionate about this particular right? Did you American crew every challenge you on this aspect of the film or while making the film did you gain greater insight into why Americans feel compelled to carry firearms?
Most of my crew were from Dallas. They were very good. No-one objected to the subject matter or my treatment of it. My first Assistant Director used to be a Dallas cop. He loved guns. But he served the film well. I got on with everyone in Dallas—although being a white English male probably helped. The school authorities were upset and so were many people when it was shown. It had an aborted life as I explain in my memoir. It was also misunderstood, even by some feminists. I just told the truth as I saw it. The place of guns is deeply embedded in American history. As I made clear in the classroom, America is built on genocide, has a macho culture and confuses owning guns with individual freedoms. This will take some shifting. It was all part of my attempt to understand America.
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