American Perfekt

USA 1997

Reviewed by Danny Leigh


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

The American midwest. On her way to meet her sister Alice, Sandra Thomas is forced off the road by a green station wagon. Another driver pulls over and introduces himself as Dr Jake Nyman, a psychiatrist. On the toss of a coin, he agrees to give her a lift. The pair run out of petrol. The station wagon pulls up. Flipping the coin once more, Jake persuades Sandra they should ask the driver, an Englishman named Santini, for a ride. That night, all three book into the motel where Sandra is to meet Alice. Jake and Sandra discover Santini is a conman. Santini argues with Sandra before leaving with a local woman, Shirley. Jake promises Sandra that Santini will never insult her again. Sandra tells Jake she would rather die than be without him.

The next morning, Jake approaches Alice in a diner. Concluding that her sister will not be arriving, Alice accepts a lift from him. The station wagon forces them off the road before crashing. In the wreckage, Alice finds Santini, his tongue missing. He dies.

Alice returns to town, where a corpse has been found. Convinced it is her sister, Alice learns from Sheriff Frank Noonan that it is actually Shirley. Jake returns for Alice. They leave together but Alice discovers Sandra's body in the trunk of Jake's car. Alice offers to toss a coin for her own life. Using a trick coin she found near Santini's body, Alice convinces Jake to release her. Moments later, Jake realises what has just happened, but before he can give chase, he is killed when Frank's car crashes into his.


Having spent nearly three years in limbo, lacking a distributor in either Britain or the US, Head Case screenwriter Paul Chart's debut feature shows all the signs of being subject to more than one trip to the editing suite. At least, that's what one hopes: there is little otherwise to explain how such an initially intriguing enterprise could so swiftly descend into disjunction and cliché. At the very moment Chart's juxtaposition of the ostensibly beatific Jake and the damaged, neurotic Sandra looks poised to segue into a revelatory middle act, it lurches into 15 minutes of (seemingly abridged) psychosexual melodrama. From there, after Sandra's unceremonious disappearance, it's all downhill fast into the hackneyed tropes of the most mundane serial-killer/woman-in-peril fodder.

Despite its welding together of disparate styles forming a road-movie chassis, American Perfekt never becomes a mischievous, genreless whole in the manner of Blood Simple or Wild at Heart (both of which Chart appears smitten with). Instead, viewing it is rather like seeing three unrelated shorts in quick succession, of which only the first is worth the effort. Nowhere is this retreat into the banal more pronounced than in the dialogue. At first, as Chart establishes his premise, his characters are gifted with dry asides, simultaneously naturalistic, illuminating and genuinely funny. ("Do you like music?" enquires the peerlessly nasal Thewlis, before answering his own question, "It's great, isn't it?")

Yet as the storyline becomes first confused then increasingly pedestrian, the cast's exchanges follow suit. The deadpan is displaced by the garishly lyrical ("He was pink and white and all the colours that you will never see. And he was my love," says Alice), before this in turn is dispensed with for the merely functional. By the time people are promising one another not to allow a third party to "ever speak like that to you again," you just know there will be a tongue going missing in the not-too-distant future.

All of which has the unfortunate consequence of rendering many of Chart's superficially engaging conceits hollow. The desert locale, for example, ultimately appears hand-me-down rather than eerily atmospheric, and the central motif of Jake Nyman's obsession with chance seems simply the product of one too many nights spent poring over David Mamet or Luke Rhinehart's cult novel The Dice Man.

Chart's shortcomings are, however, at least partially redeemed by his actors. Thewlis, in particular, attacks his somewhat insubstantial role with relish, while Robert Forster (cast here before he made Jackie Brown) delivers a fine performance of impressively reserved intensity. Or, more accurately, he does so until the debacle of the resolution, at which point all credibility is lost. Sadly, the same epithet could easily apply to the entire film. Perhaps one day a director's cut will restore some of the narrative integrity which presumably helped attract such a notable cast in the first place.


Irvin Kershner
Paul Chart
Director of Photography
William Wages
Michael Ruscio
Production Designer
Katherine Vallin
Simon Boswell
©Mondofin B.V.
Production Company
Nu Image
Executive Producers
Avi Lerner
Danny Dimbort
Elie Samaha
Boaz Davidson
Trevor Short
Dawn Handler
Andrew Schuth
Associate Producer
John Conway
Executive in Charge of Production
John Thompson
Production Associate
Mandy Branch
Production Supervisors
2nd Unit:
Jack Breschard
Perri Chasen
Production Co-ordinators
Michael Mynatt
2nd Unit:
Janet Pett-Davies
Unit Production Supervisor
Jack Breschard
Unit Production Manager
Eric Sindon
Location Manager
Max Sokolov
Post-production Supervisor
George Gale
Assistant Directors
Alan Terry
Michael Abbot
2nd Unit:
Mathew Eyrand
Script Supervisors
Donna Parish
Genie Babcock
2nd Unit Continuity
Arleen Beatty
Casting Director
Karen Elizabeth Rae
2nd Unit Director of Photography
William Wages
Special Effects
Ron Trost
Set Decorator
Jonathan Weston
Costume Designer/ 2nd Unit Wardrobe
Florence-Isabelle Megginson
Costume Co-ordinator
Karri Mayo
Key Make-up
Dalia Sayday-Dokter
Make-up/Hair/Special Effects Make-up
Randy Westgate
2nd Unit Key Make-up/Hair
Charlene Burris
Title House
Music Supervisor
Douglas Brodoff
Music Editor
Christopher Sheldon
"Vision (O euchari in leta via)" by Hildegard von Bingen, arranged/ performed by Richard Souther; "Lay It Down" by Michael Timmins, performed by Cowboy Junkies; "Twilight Time" by Al Nevins, Buck Ram, Artie Dunn, Morty Nevins, performed by The Platters
Sound Design
Dane Davis
Sound Mixer
Michael Emery
Recording Supervisor
Steven Brimmer
Recording Mixers
John Boyd
Stanley Kastner
Craig Cathers
Jim Meier
Supervising Sound Editor
Christopher Sheldon
Sound Editor
Kini Kay
Dana Johnson-Porter
Ron Bedrosian
Edward Stiedel
Dana Johnson-Porter
Ron Bedrosian
Stunt Co-ordinators
Eddie Perez
Al Goto
Fairuza Balk
Alice Thomas
Robert Forster
Dr Jake Gordon Nyman
Amanda Plummer
Sandra Thomas
Paul Sorvino
Sheriff Frank Noonan
David Thewlis
Ernest Santini
Geoffrey Lewis
Chris Sarandon
Deputy Sheriff Sammy Goodall
Joanna Gleason
Shirley Dutton
Jay Patterson
Judson Mills
Rutanya Alda
Paul Henry
trucker 1
Belinda Belaski
Jack Breschard
trucker 2
Nathan Legrand
Sarah Bibb
Lisa Long
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Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011