Dir. Dito Tsintsadze. Germany. 2003. 105 min.

Gun-shy is a slow-burning yet always engaging psychological thriller that plots a merciless course to its devastating but inevitable conclusion. A story of compulsion leavened by surreal elements - there is dark humour but no quirkiness for quirkiness' sake - it should find a place beside films like Gus Van Sant's Elephant in exploring the root causes of violence in youth. Theatrical prospects will hinge on critical support and perhaps some festival prizes while its pair of good-looking leads should help move the title in home video. But English-language distributors may consider a title change; the popular connotation of 'gun-shy' - a fear of conflict based on prior negative experience - is an inaccurate translation of what afflicts the protagonist. Lukas, a pacifist by nature, finally learns how to pull the trigger.

Co-written by the director and novelist Dirk Kurbjuweit, from his book, Gun-shy never moves at more than a stalking-horse pace and is more taut for the absence of contrived energy. Lukas (Hinrichs), an amiable provincial youth, is a clean slate when he arrives in the big city to perform his national service - rather than join the military, he delivers meals to elderly shut-ins - and the urban milieu takes little time to begin the process of corruption. The alienation, loneliness and ennui of his clients is a reflection of what is happening within Lukas, hardening him. But then his life takes an intense and exciting turn when a vivacious young woman (Wilson) flirtatiously hands him a note that says simply, "Help me." Besotted and then obsessed, he discovers that she is sexually entangled with her step-father, a noted author and lecturer on the subject of fear and how to overcome it. It's a revelation that channels Lukas' passion in a new and sinister direction.

This is where the screenplay comes into its own, where the carefully planted seeds of the first act take root. Lukas' misfit milieu becomes an unlikely provider. It turns out one of his meals-on-wheels clients, an elderly war veteran, was a sniper. Another, an ageing prostitute, has a regular customer who happens to sell black market weapons. The man upstairs has an obsession with North Korea and its illustrious leader Kim Jong-Il, along with a set of night-vision goggles. The story takes two intriguing turns, first, when Lukas comes under the scrutiny of a police investigator, and second, and most surprising, when his problem suddenly drops away. It's a masterstroke of plotting, because it once answers and extinguishes Lukas' hope.

The cast is exceptional, with Hinrichs leading the way with a note-perfect performance. Wilson, who previously appeared in Christopher Starck's well-regarded Julietta (2000), is a beguiling presence to be sure. In a memorable supporting turn is veteran German TV and film star Christoph Waltz as the detective who peaceably tracks Lukas and inadvertently provides him with the solution to his problem.

Prod co: Tatfilm Gmbh
Int'l sales: Tatfilm
Prod: Christine Ruppert
Scr: Dito Tsintsadze, Dirk Kurbjuweit, based on his book
DoP: Manuel Mack
Prod des: Thilo Mengler
Ed: Vessela Martschewski
Mus: Gio Tsintsadze, Dito Tsintsadze
Main cast: Fabian Hinrichs, Lavinia Wilson, Johan Leysen, Ingeborg Westphal.