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The American Side

D: Jenna Ricker / 102m

Cast: Greg Stuhr, Alicja Bachleda, Camilla Belle, Matthew Broderick, Robert Forster, Janeane Garofalo, Grant Shaud, Harris Yulin, Joe Grifasi, Stephen Henderson, Kelsey Siepser, Robert Vaughn

Some movies give the impression that they should be longer, that their proper running time has been truncated during the editing and post-production process. These movies seem to be saying that there’s something missing, an element that would enable the movie to be better than it is, sharper, clearer, more dynamic, more interesting, funnier, darker, better focused all round. And then there are the movies where that same impression is made, but no matter how much you may think that a longer cut might be the answer, the truth is, it wouldn’t make a difference.

Such is the case with The American Side. It’s ostensibly a modern noir thriller, with many familiar elements to ground it in that particular genre. There’s a grizzled, world-weary private detective, Charlie Paczynski (Stuhr); a damsel in distress, Nikki Meeker (Bachleda), who knows too much and whose life appears to be in danger; a femme fatale, Emily Chase (Belle), who may or may not be on the side of the bad guys; two competing businessmen – Borden Chase (Broderick) (Emily’s older brother) and Sterling Whitmore (Forster) – either of whom could be the main bad guy; and a McGuffin in the form of a mechanical design by Nikola Tesla that could be used as a weapon. In some respects its noir business as usual, and while these familiar elements should allow for a degree of comfort in navigating the twists and turns of the script, in reality they’re only used to reel in any curious – potential – viewers.

The American Side - scene1

Once the movie gets started, most viewers could be forgiven for thinking that The American Side, with its early murder of a minor character and Charlie’s determined attitude in finding their killer would be the kind of investigation that leads to corruption in high places, and the private detective realising that he can’t trust anyone. Alas, here, this is only partially true, as Charlie trusts one too many people in his quest to find his friend’s killer, and a wider conspiracy begins to make itself felt. Charlie also comes across as a little too gullible, a fact that doesn’t help him with his investigations, and which leads to his being easily fobbed off or deflected by everyone around him. And as the mystery deepens, the script – courtesy of director Ricker and star Stuhr – becomes an erratic mix of noir beats and muddled plotting.

It begins simply enough, establishing Charlie as a low-rent private eye who works out of a bar and who uses a stripper, Kat (Siepser), to help catch cheating husbands, who he then blackmails so that he receives payment from both the errant husband and the suspicious wife. It’s not a particularly lucrative business, and Charlie isn’t the most likeable of guys, but he gets by. But when Kat is killed by a man they both believe will fit the brief of cheating spouse, Charlie finds himself looking for a college professor called Soberin (Yulin) who’s mixed up in a plot to build a directed energy weapon designed by Tesla.

Sadly, what up til now has been a fairly straightforward, if gloomily shot movie, becomes a puzzle that goes off in various different directions, many of which lack a purpose other than to make things even more mysterious or inexplicable. Charlie’s own investigation sees him (traditionally) one step behind everyone else, but even when he does get up to speed the viewer is left with the sense that he’s only pretending to understand what’s going on, and in reality still doesn’t have a clue as to who’s doing what, and why. It’s not even that the plot, such as it is, is unusually complex. It’s that when explanations are forthcoming, and motivations are revealed, they just don’t make any sense. The viewer is left scratching their head and wondering if they’ve missed something.

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Ricker and Stuhr’s intention seems to have been a pretty simple one: combine basic noir components with a low-budget indie sensibility and stir together accordingly. But there’s something missing from the recipe, and the movie ends up sacrificing clarity in favour of providing uneven twists and turns, some of which feel awkward and contrived rather than organic. As the plot unfolds, some narrative decisions prove so unwieldy that you begin to suspect the script is a first draft that no one got around to looking at for errors or inconsistencies. It’s a shame as there’s the germ of a great idea here, and Tesla was enough of a maverick inventor for any movie maker to “have fun with”, but Ricker and Stuhr use him sparingly as a character, preferring instead to refer to him constantly as an under-appreciated genius who knew what was best for the world.

One of the movie’s main distractions is the continual referral to Niagara Falls and its history. The Falls are used as a backdrop – Charlie catches up with Soberin there – and events there in the past serve as clues to what Tesla was up to with his directed energy weapon, but this inclusion leads to more questions than the script can answer, and it makes for at least two unsatisfactory moments at the movie’s climax (which is also set at the Falls). This fascination also explains the movie’s title: no one has gone over the Falls from the American side and lived. (Alas, this isn’t a metaphor for anything that happens in the movie.)

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By making so much of the movie incomprehensible, or just plain confusing, Ricker and Stuhr have undermined their own project in such a comprehensive manner that the cast have no other choice but to make the best of it. Stuhr is a relaxed, no frills actor who’s not quite hard-boiled enough to make Charlie the anti-hero the script wants him to be, and he serves as the stooge in too many scenes where he should be in control. Bachleda’s role is underwritten, Belle struggles to keep her character on the right side of believable, while Broderick has his own problems with the kind of arch, mannered dialogue that even the most inexperienced of actors would run a mile from.

Under Ricker’s purview, The American Side ends up being a cumbersome, cruelly ill-considered movie that evinces little sympathy for its characters, and which proves very difficult to care about beyond a superficial level. It’s not a bad movie per se, just one that takes what should be a simple storyline and plot, and buries both of them under a pile of unnecessary implausibilities and contradictions. And it’s a movie where continuity screams excised scenes, as Charlie suffers head lacerations that happen entirely off camera and without being referred to by anyone. Somewhere there’s a longer cut of this movie, and someone needs to release it. Only then will the movie have a real chance of impressing its audience.

Rating: 5/10 – a film noir wannabe that neglects both its storyline and its plot, The American Side is so preoccupied with prolonging its inherent mystery that it can’t resist keeping it’s distance from the viewer; as a result everything suffers, and the movie never recovers from Ricker and Stuhr’s apparent insistence on filming their script as is.