Removing The Male Fantasy From Rape-Revenge In ‘Handgun’
By the time Tony Garnett’s Handgun (alternately title Deep In The Heart) was released in 1983, the ever-moralistic Roger Ebert had already denounced I Spit on Your Grave as “a vile bag of garbage,” condemning it and other rape-revenge narratives to the realms of the lowest brow cinema. As feminism’s second wave engulfed public imagination during the 1970s—providing women with vocabulary for their traumas—revenge narratives grew an additional limb.
Concerned with the prevalence of sexual violence and the victim-blaming legal system, female rape-revenge narratives joined the rounds of exploitation films, providing women the satisfaction of bloody catharsis denied to them in the real world. Unfortunately, it was mostly women who saw the generative potential of these narratives sans the exorcising capability of channeling rightful anger. For the rest, it was either entertaining trash or anti-ethical junk.
Handgun and the Rape-Revenge Genre
Garnett’s Handgun is, perhaps, one of the most unusually thoughtful films of its kind, forgotten because Warner Bros. promoted Clint Eastwood’s similar Sudden Impact in its place. The film departs from the traditional female rape-revenge narrative in several instances, resembling a character study more than the latter. Its sensibilities alienated American distributors who expected action-packed flicks with scantily clad leads and a few titillating rape scenes. Most notably, the rape is not shown here, and the film spends the greater part of its runtime in explicating details before the revenge takes place.
The result is something lived in, deeply attuned to the rhythms of its hero but with an almost matter-of-fact documentary approach to its chauvinist Texas environment and the colonial and patriarchal narratives that lie at the heart of the nation. It wouldn’t be out of bounds, then, to say that audiences’ discomforts with the film stemmed from this. First and foremost, Handgun decries America’s history of blood and violence, an America who loves its violent myths, hates women, and refuses to atone for its sins.
Texas and the Modern Frontier
The film centers on Kathleen (Karen Young), a high school teacher who’s just moved to Texas from the East. The daughter of Irish immigrants, Kathleen lives a somewhat sheltered existence, her only friend being an older female teacher at the high school. But things are quickly complicated when Kathleen meets Larry (Clayton Day), a local lawyer and a gun aficionado. The two begin a mostly platonic relationship, particularly on her end, until one night, a few after-dinner drinks turn into a refused sexual advance. When she reports the rape to the authorities, they are predictably unconcerned.
“I’m afraid that for the next few hours you are walking evidence,” the police officer says. But when she leaves, after the fluids and debris are washed from her skin, what matters then? Her priest asks her to pray for her rapist, while the sympathetic cop protests that a lawyer’s prosecution is unlikely. However, it’s clear that the prosecution itself, providing Kathleen with some sort of justice, is not impossible; quite simply, she lives in a society unwilling to do so. After all, he is a lawyer.
It’s crucial to Handgun that it’s set in Texas, which Larry notes is “still the frontier.” Rape-revenge narratives take on a multitude of genres. But as Jacinda Read observed, it’s the Western where rape and revenge are most “intimately connected,” and Texas was the Western’s hotbed. This connection manifests particularly through the captivity narrative, a literary tradition that traces back to the 19th century, where helpless white maidens were kidnapped by natives and saved in the nick of time by a white male hero. A key element of the American frontier myth necessitated the enforcement of racist assumptions about a threatening other with which to battle—“savages” who did not deserve the land like they did.
Rape-Revenge As Male Redemption
As noted in Sarah Projansky’s seminal book Watching Rape, one category of rape-revenge was especially common in the Western. From Rancho Notorious to The Bravados, grieving men set off in search of the outlaws who had raped their fiancees or wives. The traumatic nature of rape existed peripherally for its victims; it was as “an offense one male commits upon another,” a property dispute rather than violent abuse, painful only for the male hero who had risked his life for restitution.
Rape served as motivation fodder and was used to condone “violent versions of masculinity.” Although not exclusive to the Western revenge narrative, the genre lent itself to “good guy” accounts of violence in favor of justice—a detail that Handgun cleverly recontextualizes. After the rape, Larry justifies his brutality with winding psychoanalysis of her character and beauty. It was not that he had been violent; rather, Kathleen had been too attractive and puritanical—too repressed.
Handgun is packed with a multitude of references to the Western’s legacy of violence. The film begins at the grounds of Dealey Plaza, a place of inception—Dallas’, to be exact—turned murder site, when “Cowboy Bob” Kennedy’s blood re-baptized its grounds in 1963. Later, we stare down the barrel of a gun while Larry explains to high school students the beauty of the Colt six-shooter, the gun that famous showman Buffalo Bill would help cement as the “gun that won the West.”
The peacemaker, the equalizer; the sexy accoutrement of the Western cowboy hero so commonly remembered as the singular John Wayne or the handsome Eastwood. Larry’s handling of the gun is venerative, almost sexual—and more than a little phallic. One can almost sense the traces of an “if only” lingering on his lips. If only there were more Indigenous to kill. If only times were the same. Not too long after, he will hold the same gun to Kathleen’s head and rape her.
Gender and Justice
How the avenger’s justice looks is where narratives often differ. Most often, they end in the attackers’ deaths. Revenge scenes are frequently lurid, methodical and bloody—lengthy enough to half-cover the tracks of the noxiousness of the initial attack, though they never feel like enough. In Handgun, though, it’s Kathleen’s grief and anger that dominate the majority of the film. The text is more concerned with her lingering trauma, how the assault transforms her physically and emotionally. But Garnett’s camera is on her side; there are no lingering shots of her body, no dramatic swelling of music, just the painful banality of picking up a phone the day after and hearing your rapist’s voice.
Indeed, Kathleen’s justice looks more like vehement rejection than gory catharsis. Historian Richard Slotkin writes that myth serves as “the primary language of historical memory.” And the West, she soon realizes, was never written with women in mind. She is a woman forced to take up the tradition of Western femininity, a role that implies a submission and naivety that she can no longer sustain. If patriarchal society bestows femininity with a natural vulnerability, Kathleen finds she has to construct—quite forcefully—a new space in order to exist.
The assault marks a clear before and after: she cuts her long blonde hair short, like a boy, finding some sort of comfort in the malleability of her appearance, and joins Larry’s gun range. Like her attacker, the gun is her weapon of choice, but the tool doesn’t bear the same weight for both. To wield the gun differently, Kathleen positions herself against society by carving out the figures and institutions that denied her a safe place within it. During a shooting competition, the men at the range observe that Kathleen ruined her perfect score by deliberately shooting a “friendly” target—a cutout policeman. Highlighting the genre trappings of the Western within the present obliterates the assurance past histories afford audiences: that the patriarchy no longer exists—that it is a distant memory.
Heroes, Violence, and Myth
“Aren’t guns fun, Larry? Everyone should have one, then we could all play,” Kathleen sputters near the end of the film, while Larry is on his knees in front of her. The word play is key here. Performance adopts the most pivotal role in the film’s delineation of its thesis. Nowhere is this demonstrated more plainly than in the construction of the mythical cowboy and its symbolic extension—the gun. The gun’s masculine potency, its ability to “peacekeep,” enabled the gendered and racialized project of “civilization,” while Hollywood transmuted violence into heroics. Gradually, the gun became divorced from the horror it engendered and analogous to the Western hero—the self-made man who embodied the virtues of the national ethos.
What it presented was too appealing of a fantasy; as the quote famously said, “God made man, Samuel Colt made them equal.” Men could quickly neutralize enemies without additional manpower; they could defend their families from the people who fought to inhabit the land they now called theirs and be heroes all at once. These men, of course, were not real. If the mythical cowboy existed, he was a second skin. After grueling days of work in the trails, bathed and shaved men traded their work clothes for the “working costume” of the cowboy—star-topped boots, fancy pistols and all—where they would pose for pictures.
What’s more, Garnett’s camera reveals the descendants of the myth; where with the sheen of celluloid they were protectors on the range, here they are little more than paranoid amateur conspiracists. Men huddled together in rooms, telling each other stories of a future that will be impossible to survive (“What do you think is going to happen when the government can’t pay off welfare checks? Every Black and Mexican in this city is going to start rioting.”) and a past that doesn’t exist, accompanied by weapons that will defend them from enemies that will never arrive at their door. As Ford tells us in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Handgun understands that the fantasy of agency is precisely that—a fantastical heritage of colonial and misogynistic power relations. But it also recognizes that there is a power to be found in donning the suit, so to speak. It’s not surprising that Larry himself participates in an elaborate performance, though his is not self-aware. He hankers after a bygone golden era, fashioning himself after John Wayne instead of the modern men he despises, not realizing that what he’s after doesn’t exist.
‘Handgun’ and Questionable Justice
If Texas is stuck in the past amid a rubble of myths and masculine frustrations, Kathleen will meet Larry halfway and make a sharp exit, once she’s acquired justice on her own terms. In the film’s central scene, she calls Larry to lure him to the range at night. The film cuts between the two of them, her dressed in black with a Western shirt and red bandana, and him half-naked in front of a mirror—a portent of how things will inevitably end.
For Garnett, utilizing guns uncritically signals a foul permissiveness, a glorification of America’s history of violence, but Kathleen orchestrates her revenge like a cowboy shoot-out. She chases Larry in the dark and wounds him. However, when she has the opportunity to kill him, she knocks him out with a tranquilizer instead. She drops him in front of a courthouse and leaves.
Much has been made about the film’s ending, the way in which Handgun sets itself apart. In the final scene, a smiling Kathleen is surrounded by her students. What remains of the past is her boyish haircut. Some argue that Kathleen’s revenge is compromised, that the film articulates a return to the norm that’s a product of the patriarchy. It goes without saying that the film was written and directed by a man, but a film made by a woman is no more or less exempt from participating in the patriarchy.
Take, for instance, Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Fennell, wherein trying to separate rape-revenge narratives from “male fantasies,” she creates an empty but glittery product where the greatest imaginable triumph is a victim’s death. In Handgun, there is no gloss, no gotcha moment, only a troubling and acidic reality: the safety of women rests on them and them alone, but maybe there is a way out.
Kathleen’s revenge, then, is one of fear rather than bloodshed, her fascination with guns an education rather than participation. “America is in love with guns,” she professes halfway through the film. America is in love with violence. America can’t seem to exorcise the past. America doesn’t even know it. If anything, Kathleen’s smile is life-affirming. When she lifts a baby in her arms, Handgun accomplishes what only the best rape-revenge narratives manage: finally, we imagine a time and place where she will no longer need the gun that she was forced to pick up in the first place.