Details: (MA15+), 105 mins, In Cinemas 11 November 2010, United States, English
Synopsis: As an assassin, Jack (George Clooney) is constantly on the move and always alone. After a job in Sweden ends more harshly than expected, Jack retreats to the Italian countryside. He relishes being away from death for a spell as he holes up in a small medieval town. While there, Jack takes an assignment to construct a weapon for a mysterious contact, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). Savoring the peaceful quietude he finds in the mountains of Abruzzo, Jack accepts the friendship of local priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) and pursues a torrid liaison with a beautiful woman, Clara (Violante Placido). Jack and Clara’s time together evolves into a romance, one seemingly free of danger. But by stepping out of the shadows, Jack may be tempting fate.
Clooney as killer in old fashioned character study.
In The American, George Clooney has the title role, a professional assassin. Before the main titles have played out, the movie has accrued a body count, and by the implacable cool (and breathtaking skill) Clooney’s character exhibits in knocking off blokes who want to kill him, we already have a deep understanding of character and the stakes at hand: The American is very good at his job, and he’s a wanted man.
Still, there’s something dead at the centre of this sad-faced, broody American; early on in the movie he suffers a personal tragedy. But after this violent, jarring opening, the action abruptly jumps from Sweden to Italy, so there’s little chance to reflect on the carnage we’ve witnessed, or the potential emotional damage to Clooney’s killer.
The American hides out in a little village and accepts a job brokered by his minder, Pavel (Johan Leysen), to manufacture a special weapon for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). When the pair first meet, in a café, the scene plays like a bizarre and ironic parody of a first date, except here, the terse dialogue amounts to cryptic cues about assassination hardware – range, velocity, silencer; this is a 'partnership' that will end in death, but whose death and why?
A lot of screen time here is spent on the procedural details that consume The American’s existence; time after time, director Anton Corbijn returns to scenes of Clooney alone in a small room putting his special order killing tool together. Lit with a loud but sickly yellow light, and shot with a lavish use of gigantic close-ups that turn bullets, and fine-tooled machinery into beautiful abstracts, these quiet scenes of a killer at work are freighted with a conscious, religious overtone (while at the same time paying a pretty obvious homage to similar scenes in Taxi Driver). The American may well be a secular 'priest' of death, but in this movie he can’t quite escape or elude conscience. The village priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), a porcine old man, with a kind face, takes one look at The American when they first meet and pegs him straight away as a sinner; a soul to be saved.
With a dramatic irony that's teased out deliberately and boldly by Corbjin, The American falls into a relationship with a local prostitute, Clara (Violante Palcido, in a wonderfully natural performance) that is defined by a promise of redemption, but can Clooney's professional afford to feel anything?
Corbijn was a famous photographer before he made his directorial debut with the excellent Ian Curtis biography Control (2007) and there's a cool stateliness to the action here; objects, landscapes and especially faces, are subjects to be studied, investigated, and contemplated before they are to be adequately consumed. Corbijn, working with cinematographer Martin Ruhe again, has produced something unique; The American is no vogue-ish thriller in its look and feel. The camera is rock solid and the colour soft; it has the faded texture of an old photo, left out in the sun too long.
Some overseas critics haven't much liked Clooney's performance here, seeing at as a study in big-star cool. But I found it, on reflection, rather moving. Clooney's character is in a kind of hell (as one character puts it); he's helpless to truly change who he is, and so in a very real sense he has no future. There's a lot of pain in his shut down responses. He's lonely, but he's elected to be lonely and it's killing him.
With its globetrotting plot and killer on the run scenario, The American's pedigree, at least in cold-print, sounds pre-determined by a generation of recent thrillers; perhaps audiences have a right to expect pace, action, and a lot of plot. Still, Corbijn confounds any obvious expectations; he delivers chases and violence but it's not an action movie, and the narrative is lean, full of intrigue and designed to withhold the promise of easy answers and simple solutions.
Indeed, based on a novel by Martin Booth called A Very Private Gentleman, the movie is loaded with literary devices and poetic allusions that have the movie vaulting for significance, yet, it works because Corbijn finds a reflective tone early and clings to it. It is a thriller but its slow pace and melancholy tone signal loudly that it’s true interest is in character, not visceral excitement.
The American is not quite the post 9/11 style political analogy some writers have claimed. (We never find out who is to be killed, or why, or who The American works for). And, as to whether The American is a 70s-type thriller (to buy into the hype) well, perhaps Clooney is to blame for critics clinging to a label that seems, in this instance, overstated and misleading. Clooney has frequently spoken about the way that a certain generation of 70s-era US directors could combine entertainment value with substance. We can take from this movie's low-key energy and air of seriousness, an implicit criticism of the current fashion for thrillers who use the genre as a pretext to blow stuff to bits; for a time in the 70s it was a context to explore character and ideas. And to be sure The American is a character study, and an old fashioned one – it is committed to a kind of existential exploration that seems decidedly out of whack in a digital age that suggests we can be who ever we want to be and damn the consequences. The American gives lie to that idea; it seems significant that the title character here is known as Jack and sometimes Edward. Clooney's anti-hero is a guy doesn't know who he is except that he is a walking advertisement for death.
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