Going over Niagara Falls in a barrel isn’t the most dangerous thing Charlie Paczynski (co-writer Greg Stuhr) faces in THE AMERICAN SIDE. Pasczynski is a low-rent private eye working the seamier side of Buffalo, New York, where Niagra falls and both honeymooners and suicides flock. When one the cons he runs to pay the rent goes south, sending the bait, aka Kat the stripper (Kelsey Siepser), to the big sleep, he is suddenly thrust into a world of vintage cars, elegant mansions, international intrigue, squabbling siblings, and diagrams drawn by Nikola Tesla that might turn the world inside out if they fall into the wrong hands.
Paczynski’s troubles quickly escalate when a damsel in distress (Alicja Bachleda) literally runs into him in an iconic sort of dark alley, and a femme fatale (Camilla Belle) decked out in a tight sweater and red lipstick comes calling with a job offer. The target (Harris Yulin) is a man conveniently already on Paczynski’s radar. Finding him is easy, dealing with the fallout of his apparent suicide by taking a plunge into the Falls, is another thing altogether. The mystery of why he jumped, or if he was helped, takes him to a boyish but somehow unsavory industrialist (Matthew Broderick), a silver-haired man (Robert Vaughn) who claims he died 60 years ago, a connoisseur of vintage apparatus (Stephen Henderson), Serbs on a mission of national pride, and an affable, yet enigmatic, stranger (Robert Forster) who doles out clues with a strategic parsimony.
Tesla, the politics of science, government black ops, and a shadowy cabal that may or may not actually be running the world all wrapped up in a nifty neo-noir that pays suitable homage to the genre? Be still my foolish heart. Tesla is the center of this cinematic universe, even if Paczynski hasn’t noticed it yet. Yet the inventor, largely uncredited, who predicted the hi-tech devices that surround us, is neatly insinuated into the environment. Take the way his theories about physics are bruited about on the radio that plays in the background. Fact and fiction blend just as seamlessly, with the truth of what happened to the contents of Tesla’s hotel room after his death being the factual springboard for everything that happens, from home electroshock therapy kits to what secrets are kept behind the thundering sheets of water that spill into the Niagara River from Canada and the United States.
Director/co-writer Jenna Ricker catches the zeitgeist of the noir. The danger lurking beneath a seemingly banal surface, and a not-so innocent private-eye innocently caught in the middle of something he can’t fathom, but from which he also can’t walk away. Stuhr balances the hard-boiled cynic and the man of honor whose code is strict, if not conventionally ethical. As he casts a baleful eye on the world, he is the quintessential anti-hero with a psychic wound who hasn’t quite managed to quash that last flicker of idealism, much as he’d like to. Who can use the word “hooey” without irony, and keeps the world at bay with mordant quips that combine pathos and aggression. He moves in the lush cinematography and art direction of a world out of time that captures the corruption of wealth, and the tense mystery of a candlelit church.
Nothing is left to chance in THE AMERICAN SIDE. Rife with tantalizing possibilities and assured performances, including an eccentric turn by Grant Shaud as a man a little too attached to his boat, it’s a beguiling jigsaw puzzle of a film that surprises and delights at every turn.