Delicate Art of the Rifle, The: Harper’s Feature Debut about Charles Whitman, the 1966 Austin Sniper

Taking as its point of departure the 1966 Charles Whitman shooting incident at the University of Texas, D.W. Harper’s feature debut, aptly titled The Delicate Art of the Rifle, is an astute political satire about the irrational nature of violence in American life.

Though structurally flawed, this provocative meditation, imbued with a Godardian sensibility, warrants limited theatrical release that’s likely to be embraced by young intelligent viewers in major cities and campuses around the country.

Real-life event is reconstructed by members of the Cambrai Liberation Collective as a serio-comic tale, with noirish and absurdist overtones that in social relevance go well beyond the tragic historical event.

Humorously narrated from the P.O.V. of Jay (David Grant), the snipper’s witty, quirky-looking roommate, the complex story focuses on the fateful day the campus killings occurred.

Yarn begins at the university theater, with Jay walking through long and dark Kafkaesque corridors, providing a comic look from a high angle of a rehearsal of Hamlet as a postmodern fashion show. Later, Jay meets his System professor, Dr. Boaz (John Kessel), and together they walk to Foucault Tower: the campus super-dorm. Rising to 27 floors, the self-contained city is literally–and figuratively–the Tower of Babel. Suddenly, in the midst of their philosophical discourse, Dr. Boaz and other students are shot by an unseen sniper, with Jay the only survivor.

When a mysterious voice calls Jay from the roof, it turns out to be his roommate, Walter Lee Whitman (Stephen Grant). On his way up, Jay confronts a number of his classmates: a doomed agri-science major, an amorous girl obsessed with frosting cupcakes, a sleep-deprived psychology major in the elevator, a band of computer hackers and their psychotic leader. The campus as a chaotic battlefield is much more astutely portrayed here than in recent American movies, most notably John Singleton’s messy melodrama, Higher Learning.

Up to this point, the film maintains both a suspenseful and offbeat tone. However, once Jay hooks up with Whitman, the narrative slows down and progressively loses its energy–and edge. In the last reel, Whitman exposes a conspiracy theory that would make Oliver Stone jealous: A mysterious virus has been erasing people from history, with no trace. Walt holds that the virus, which already claimed the life of his g.f., is rapidly spreading and that he himself is fatally infected. The duo’s existential tirade is interrupted by exchange of bullets between the gunman and a student SWAT team, which tries to take the roof. Story’s denouement, which is coherent, can’t be revealed here.

Intrigued by the fact that Charles Whitman, the 1966 sniper, was a former Marine and Eagle Scout, the filmmakers shrewdly avoid facile psychological explanations. Embracing a rather nihilistic doctrine, they aim at showing that violence can erupt arbitrarily, with no apparent reason; they commendably refrain from suggesting the obvious, and that Whitman was a psychopath. For the most part they succeed, though in the roof sequence, which is ineffectively staged, they lose their grip over their arduous material, caught in the dilemma of how much background–and motivation–they need to offer in order to humanize Whitman’s character and make it more comprehensible.

The beginning and ending, which are symmetric, are overly long and silent, with little text or sound. Both sequences should be cut down to make the yarn tighter and the finale more gripping. And while the wry Godard-like narration, with references to Marx, Mark Twain and Coke, is entertaining, it’s also too distancing.

The Delicate of the Rifle is an intelligent film that unlike many contempo indies not only deals with a significant issues but also exhibits a fresh voice.