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September 27, 2010

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Review: The American

Posted by on Sep 27, 2010

Trailers for The American immediately convinced me that I would like the movie, and this proved to be true.  However, the movie I ended up seeing was not the movie I expected.  The American turned out to be a meticulous, detail-oriented, and unhurried spy-thriller, with the European art-house elements so prominent in the trailer only appearing towards the end of the film.

See why I liked it, and whether it sounds like a film for you, after the jump.

George Clooney has recently done several films, like Good Night and Good Luck, Michael Clayton, and Syriana, with fairly serious subject matter, much like The American.  However, unlike these other films, George Clooney does not fire on all his guns of charm and energy.  He is a fairly restrained and emotionally reserved character in this movie, and it serves to draw attention to one of the main goals of the film: portraying the life of an assassin.  Clooney plays Jack, sometimes called Edward, a shadowy figure who is reaching the twilight of his career as a hit-man and mercenary.  The opening sequence establishes the character’s struggle with loneliness with a violence and suddenness that is quite jolting and affecting.  From there, the film continues for quite some time to show the ins and outs of operating off the grid as a killer for hire: it is lonely, quiet, and involves a large amount of waiting.  The sense of paranoia Jack must maintain at all times is quite well communicated.

The details of an assassin’s life are given great attention.  The process of Jack’s current assignment, building a custom rifle, is followed through from start to finish.  The need to travel to a different town simply to make a phone call is emphasized by showing Jack’s trip back and forth three separate times.  Jack’s expertise at late-night chases through tiny Italian streets is demonstrated by his repeated protocol of removing his shoes so that the target does not hear his approach.

Which brings us to the setting: Anton Corbijn chose some really great locations and shots.  This film is beautiful.  The sweeping panoramic shots of the Italian countryside and hilltop villages are really incredible.  Also, Corbijn manages to turn the previously-mentioned tiny Italian streets from a quaint tourist attraction into claustrophobic, paranoia-inducing mazes.  One gets the feeling of being in a M.C. Escher painting, without having it pointed out to you like in Inception.

Corbijn’s major success was the well-received 2007 bio-pic Control, about Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division.  In fact, much of his previous work was either about music or specifically for music videos.  It is strange, then, that this movie has almost no soundtrack.  The silence is eerie, and works quite well, especially since it renders the moment when Jack seems like he might be able to escape his lonely life rather stirring, being accompanied with the only major use of music.

The art-house elements emerge as Jack slowly starts to desire an escape from the life of a killer.  He meets Clara, played by Violante Placido, a prostitute whose services he hires.  Somehow, despite his almost complete lack of tenderness with her, she decides to see him not as a client but as a real romantic partner.  This is completely unexplained, and I still couldn’t even begin to justify it other than to say “Hey, it’s George Clooney.”  Jack also receives the nickname “Mister Butterfly” from both Clara and the client who has hired him, due to his strange butterfly tattoo and his affinity for the creatures.  The struggle of Clooney’s character to escape the prison of his life is communicated fairly well, and I was enjoying watching his existential dilemma, right up until another character whom Jack meets, the priest Father Benedetto, explicitly states it: “You are already in hell.  You live a life without love.”  I really, REALLY wish film-makers would trust that American audiences will get the message of their movie.

I should say that I enjoy films that set out to fully establish a world or an environment or an experience.  If the plot is slow or lacking as a result, I don’t always particularly mind, provided that the world being created is interesting or well-conceived.  This was one of the main reasons I enjoyed this film.  If you need an action-driven plot, this film probably won’t be for you.  If you like atmosphere and detail in your movies, or even just a really well shot film, you’ll definitely enjoy it.  If you were looking for a film that leaves a lot of the answers to be filled in by the viewer, you might be disappointed with the way the movie hits you over the head with its moral towards the end.

  • Tom

    I still think they should have stuck with the original title of the book: “A Very Private Gentleman”. Epic.

  • I thought this looked awesome when I saw the trailer, and you just confirmed my suspicions. I will have to drag the crew out to see it.