With one foot firmly in the exploitation arena and the other gingerly dipping into more interesting American indie territory, writer-director Paul Chart makes a quirky, fitfully promising feature debut with "American Perfekt."

With one foot firmly in the exploitation arena and the other gingerly dipping into more interesting American indie territory, writer-director Paul Chart makes a quirky, fitfully promising feature debut with “American Perfekt.” Hackneyed and familiar but with some interesting flavors creeping in from time to time, this curio about a cool serial killer running amok in the California desert has enough off-center impulses shooting through it to attract a bit of critical attention, but lacks sufficient punch to make a B.O. impact.

At this point, any amount of criminal mayhem taking place in the California desert is bound to look a little tired unless hypoed by a major dose of originality. Chart brings a few offbeat textures to this tale of a mind downshifted into a destructive mode, but they are not enough to overcome the simultaneously stale and overwrought nature of much of the story.

Driving to see her mother in Utah, L.A. woman Sandra (Amanda Plummer) is run off the road in the desert by a station wagon, only to be rescued by a generous gentleman, Jake (Robert Forster), who helps her get to presumed safety. A needy neurotic, Sandra notices the parked station wagon and steals some money from it, leading to a prolonged encounter with its loony driver, Santini (David Thewlis).

From the outset, it is clear that all the characters have a screw loose, although in the case of Jake it’s hard to tell exactly what his game is. The man’s main preoccupation is flipping a coin to dictate any decisions he’s forced to make, a device that laboriously indicates the arbitrariness of victimhood in crime movies such as “American Perfekt.” Eventually, Jake and Sandra take a roll in the hay that includes some truly gratuitous nudity, but at about the half-way point, Sandra suddenly vanishes as Jake meets the woman’s younger sister, Alice (Fairuza Balk), a tough customer who catches a ride with Jake, only to be run off the road by Santini. Latter comes up on the short end, however, and his demise shifts the focus of suspicion for Sandra’s disappearance to Jake, a psychiatrist who suddenly reveals himself to be more unbalanced than any of his patients must have been.

Tale evolves into a test of wits and nerve between the quicksilver Jake and the resourceful Alice, as the latter attempts to avoid a gruesome fate while the local sheriff (Paul Sorvino) attempts to pick up the pair’s trail. Yarn works in a couple of little surprises, and film picks up when Alice enters the action and Jake’s true colors are finally revealed.

Helping matters significantly is Balk, who brings considerable personality to her role despite only vague indications provided by the script. Sixties stalwart Forster (“Reflections in a Golden Eye,” “Medium Cool”) returns here resembling a middle-aged Burt Reynolds, and acquits himself more interestingly as the helpful fellow of the early going than as the demented, coin-tossing nasty of the latter reels. Plummer and Thewlis are both mannered, although the former does generate some viewer sympathy for a solitary woman vulnerable in the wilderness.

Pic’s technical credits can’t camouflage its obvious low-budget constraints.

American Perfekt

Production

A Nu Image presentation. Produced by Irvin Kershner. Executive producers, Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort, Elie Samaha, Boaz Davidson, Trevor Short. Co-producers, Dawn Handler, Andrew Schuth. Directed, written by Paul Chart.

Crew

Camera (Foto-Kem color), William Wages; editor, Michael Russo; music, Simon Boswell; production design, Katherine Vallin; set decoration, Jonathan Weston; costume design, Florence-Isabelle Megginson; sound (Dolby), Michael Emery; associate producer, John Conway; casting, Karen Elizabeth Rae. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 8, 1997. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Alice - Fairuza Balk
Jake - Robert Forster
Sandra - Amanda Plummer
Frank - Paul Sorvino
Santini - David Thewlis
Willy - Geoffrey Lewis
Sammy - Chris Sarandon
Shirley - Joanna Gleason
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