John Mossman has a scary new movie, but he’s not just trying to scare us. Good Guy With a Gun (not to be confused with a 2020 short with the same title) is a feature-length drama/thriller slated for a regional premiere February 27 as part of the Midwest Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
A gun owner and hunter who favors “commonsense gun control,” Mossman says his goal for the film is to open a more nuanced discussion about firearms and the dangers of America’s macho-mythic gun culture.
I’ve seen it and can report back: I am scared.
Mossman, an actor, director, writer, producer, and teacher of those trades, grew up in the circus town of Baraboo, Wisconsin. In 1998, he and actor/director Kathy Scambiatterra (who’s also his wife), cofounded the actor-centered Chicago theater company, The Artistic Home, where he’s still an ensemble member and she is artistic director. A self-described “citified redneck,” he considers the NRA “a terrorist-enabling organization” and says outrage over the January 6 insurrection prompted him to make this movie. But its origins go back a decade.
“Ten years ago, I had a dream of being a shooter,” Mossman says. “I had never had that dream before, and I’ve never played any of those games where you do that, but I was walking through some sort of suburban rolling wooded area shooting people. And after I’d done that, I realized there was no answer for my deeds, no redemption, and I was going to have to kill myself. It was a terrible dream.
“I hadn’t written in six months, but I woke up and went downstairs at 4:30 or five o’clock in the morning. I tried to write something . . . but I couldn’t do it. I was trying to figure out, from that dream, how could you represent the mind of someone who does that, without making them a demon the entire time? Two and a half hours later, I hear my wife upstairs crying. I said, ‘What happened?’ and she said, ‘Someone just shot 20 kids in Sandy Hook.’
“I was so traumatized, I couldn’t tell her that I had that dream. I didn’t tell anyone for years. I felt, somehow, like I had penetrated some crack in time or in the universe. I’m the son of an engineer, show-me people, so I didn’t believe in that sort of thing, but it was so upsetting that I didn’t tell anybody.”
Mossman says he tried, for years, “to find a way to work that out of my system.” Then, when January 6 happened, “I sort of combined those two [events]. To be honest, this [film] is a bit of an exorcism.”
Good Guy With a Gun (shot in less than a month in Chicago and Lockport) packs a lot of Chicago talent, including Mossman, who, in addition to writing and directing, cast himself as one of the film’s two villains, and Scambiatterra as a church lady—a minor role with a major message. Steppenwolf’s Ian Barford is a neighbor with benefits, John LaFlamboy shows up as a shrewd cop, and Joe Swanberg—oh, spoiler alert.
It would be a disservice to the jarring turns and ramped-up tension in the last half of the film to divulge too much of the plot, but it follows a bereaved mother (deftly played by Tiffany Bedwell) and her teenage son, Will (Beck Nolan), on a sojourn from Chicago to a small midwestern town where Will makes a friend (Jack Cain) and falls under the influence of what appears to be the town’s prevailing tough-guy-with-a-gun culture.
There are many realistically awkward moments in this film; they struck me as one of its strengths. And its opening scene of urban violence could have literally been pulled from our daily headlines. But the evil forces here—Dan Waller as the racist, sexist, homophobic Duke, and Mossman as his equally warped buddy, Riggs—are so grotesquely extreme and demonic that someone needs to take them out.
This may or may not work at cross-purposes with Mossman’s main intention, which is to take on “the simplistic idea implied by ‘good guy with a gun’ philosophy”—the idea that “someone could take another’s life and then be OK with it for the rest of their life.” This is false, Mossman says: “You’re not asking them to be a savior, you’re asking them to be a sacrifice. They will never be the same. To pretend that they are is a cheap betrayal of the human spirit that the gun industry shamelessly embraces.”
Mossman is trying to book film festivals in red and purple states and wants to see what the reaction will be there. But he says the greatest interest in the film is coming from outside of the U.S. He thinks that’s because the rest of the world is “just trying to unravel this weird phenomenon that is America and its love affair with, and worshipping of, firearms.”
I’m afraid it’s because they think it’ll confirm the image of America they already have: gun-besotted, dangerous, and despicable.