1992, the year following the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind and the year bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney jumped on the bandwagon and increased in popularity, ‘Grunge' was a term that had been gradually introduced into the mainstream and one year on, was fast becoming commercialised. This was the year that Cameron Crowe coughed up Singles (1992), Hollywood’s attempt to encapsulate their understanding of grunge on the big screen and what an embarrassment that was too. Cameo’s from key figures of the scene including Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder were shoehorned into the movie in an attempt to up the zeitgeist, yet these latecomers only added to the film’s overall contrivance making the whole effort completely misguided. That same year, a small, independent film was released, starring Drew Barrymore, a regular in the tabloids back then, Gun Crazy (1992) was released with little fanfare and with no association whatsoever with the term “grunge”. The film is no masterpiece, yet in hindsight it fortuitously captures the essence of that bygone era, perhaps more so than any other movie ever claimed to.
Barrymore plays Anita, a troubled young outcast. Ostracised at school and sexually abused at home, Anita is desperately lonely and has no concept of optimism. Her teacher sets an assignment, encouraging the students to correspond with a pen pal and Anita soon begins a long distance relationship with a prisoner named Harold (James LeGros). The compassion within the letters enables Anita with a newfound confidence, allowing her the ability to stand up to her abusive step-father (Joe Dallesandro). Harold expresses an interest in guns. Keen to keep in with him, Anita begins to take lessons from her step-father, much to his detriment, as his lights are swiftly put out, with a well aimed bullet to the back of the head. Upon his release from prison, the two meet up and a whirlwind romance ensues along with an increasing body count of wrong-doers, things, it seem can only get worse for the perilous soul-mates.
Directed by Tamra Davis, the film has a distinctly dull aesthetic which complements the grit in the plot. The landscapes are filtered, adding permeation to Anita’s pessimistic and inescapable lull. As the couple are brought together through their letters, the imagery overlapping the spoken narrative allows the viewer to see both how inordinately sexual Anita has become, and how she sees herself in the wake of the abuse she has suffered. Harold’s obsession with guns, we soon discover, is a form of compensation for his impotence. When the pair initially meet, Harold presents Anita with a painting of two silhouettes. Following a later kill, Davis brings the painting to life beautifully. With dirt on the lens, the two bond over a shallow grave. This naturalistic couple were very much meant to be, unlike say Micky and Mallory, the cartoonish couple of Oliver Stone’s gratuitous Natural Born Killers (1994). Whilst the protagonists would, as the title suggests, be considered as crazy, cold hearted killers, their histories and the vulnerabilities the actors express in their performance allow you to empathise with both them and their tragic circumstances. This is not a film about a pair of gun slinging, callous love birds, at its core, Gun Crazy is an allegory on the dark consequences of abuse. Barrymore is perfectly cast as Anita. Only sixteen at the time of filming, she brings crucial vulnerability to the role as well as the essence of the hyper-sexualised, girl-gone-wild constitution that had been created on her behalf by tabloid magazines of the late 80s and early 90s.
LeGros, as Harold, plays a subtle second fiddle, seemingly aware that this is definitely Barrymore’s film and Warhol’s famous poster boy, Joe Dallesandro adds a spurt of kudos as Anita’s step-father. The locations used within the film, sit comfortably with what we now recall of the grunge era; derelict buildings line the streets, characters live in trailers and the kids favourite hang-out is a rubbish dump. The costumes are also notoriously of the time as characters wear plaid shirts, second-hand suits, dungarees and denim and the true beauty of it is that it is all entirely incidental. Davis had previously worked on Sonic Youth’s Goo videos along with fellow upcoming director Todd Haynes and had subconsciously continued to capture the spirit and pessimistic attitude of the era. The understated soundtrack features Suicidal Tendencies, Sonic Youth, Helmet and Grunttruck, again, not to make this a “grunge” film, just because of the period. By no means is Gun Crazy note perfect, but if you’re looking for a truly authentic slice of grunge pie, Tamra Davis unintentionally made it and its taste remains judiciously bittersweet.