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The American (2010) ****

September 16, 2010

written by: Rowan Joffe (screenplay) & Martin Booth (novel)
produced by: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Anne Carey, Jill Green & Ann Wingate
directed by: Anton Corbijn
rated R (for violence, sexual content and nudity)
103 min.
U.S. release date: September 1, 2010
“The American” is not the film most Americans will expect based on what is shown in the ads and trailers. It appears to be a fast-paced spy thriller along the lines of the Jason Bourne films but it is not. While the film has all the conventions of a spy thriller: harried chase scenes, gorgeous women, breathtaking locales….it’s still a completely different film from what audiences familiar with that genre are used to, which is a great thing. I don’t consider the marketing disingenuous, just necessary and clever. Let’s face it, if Americans were told that the new George Clooney film would be a beautifully shot, slow-burn Euro-thriller with subtitles, it’s doubtful it would become number one at the box office.
Never underestimate the draw of Clooney though since the film opened at number one over Labor Day weekend, beating The Mexican in “Machete”.  So, moviegoers in the States were obviously more curious about the Clooney film yet responses I’ve personally heard ranged from “it was good but kinda slow” to “I hated it”, (the last one is always such a telling response!) confirms that their expectations were way off. 
My experience was nowhere near those responses. I discovered a film that was patient with each frame, allowing me to absorb its quiet meditation on both atmosphere and character.  It’s rare that a film gives viewers time to breathe in what is being delivered on-screen, so when the action does come it startles and flows naturally, free of any gimmicky shock or special effects. While the story being told is one we may have seen before, it’s been a long while since we’ve seen one so cleverly executed and carefully crafted.


The story is one of “A Very Private Gentleman” (the name of the 1990 Martin Booth novel adapted by screenwriter Rowan Joffe) who has worked as a professional with a specific set of skills and a thing for butterflies. He builds custom guns for assassins, a dangerous and demanding skill no doubt, although he says he’s not good with machines. He is slow to speak and choses his words carefully, almost in a hesitantly awkward manner. His tired eyes indicate a fragility about him which tell us he is ready for the proverbial “one last job” if only his weakness for the love of a woman doesn’t get in the way.
We gradually come to know this as the story develops, naturally, as you’d come to know anyone. There’s no time wasted on any exposition dialogue that could easily be told through storytelling visuals. This is a film that may not tell you everything you may want to know but certainly does satisfy with what it does tell show you.
The film slowly opens in a quiet, wintry Swedish countryside, where a grey-bearded Jack (George Clooney) can be seen relaxing in a cottage with his lover (Irina Björklund), away from anything or anyone. Such a chance at solitude is soon fatally extinguished when armed assailants arrive. It was too good to be true. We next see a clean-shaven Jack arrive in Rome where he contacts his handler Pavel (Johan Leysen) who sets him up with a car, a map with directions and a cell phone. Pavel tells him to go and wait for his call. Their exchange with each other is terse and curt. On his way to the appointed destination, Jack tosses the phone out the window and over a bridge. Is it a decisive based on paranoia or does he really only trust himself?  
After examining his assigned destination carefully, he opts against the location and chooses an entirely different one, Castelvecchio, a mountaintop village , in the Abruzzo region. Jack contacts Pavel, on his terms, and accepts a job assembling a specified sniper rifle for an assassin named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) that he meets in public. With the specifications established, they disperse, both keeping a watchful eye on the other.
As Jack gets settled into his own apartment he exhibits a  methodical routine that we gather he has developed over the years. We see it in the way he sips espresso, quietly reads, diligently completes pull-ups and push-ups (in slacks, no less). It can also be seen in the way he assembles the product he is creating with precision and pride. He appears to be a man who tightly holds on to discipline, possible afraid of what would happen if he let go. Maybe he is just a man who knows that something may be out there waiting for him.
As he suspiciously watches villagers and his surroundings, they can’t help but notice this American. Especially the kind priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonaelli), who extends friendship while seeing through Jack’s lies. He talks to Jack of the burden of past sins and it’s obvious Jack knows full well the repercussion of past sins. There’s what happened in Sweden and probably other events that have developed a scar tissue that has become more challenging to live with.
Maybe a relationship he develops with a town prostitute, the beautiful and confident Clara (Violante Placido), can allow him a life free of the lies and guilt that are so embedded in his life. Yet Jack begins on a lie, introducing himself as Edward and becoming as cautious with her as he would anyone else, regardless of how she opens her heart to him. Inevitably, another Swede tracks Jack, (it matters not why since we’re already immersed) forcing him out of the tight, dimly lit stone corridors of the village. Once again, engaging a tug-of-war between the peace he seeks and the violence he is accustomed to. We watch as Jack or Edward, or as Clara calls him Farfalle (Mr. Butterfly, due to the tattoo between his shoulder blades), tries to make a life for himself while tying up the loose ends of the life he desires to leave.
Anton Corbijn is known for his iconic photographs of musicians and directing music videos over several decades, experiences that served him well in 2007’s fantastic “Control”, his directorial feature debut. His sophomore effort has a completely different form and tone in a genre that feels like something out of the 70’s and it is equally fantastic. His previous film was charged with music amid a black and white palette while this one employs the talents of German composer Herbert Grönemeyer that compose an array of vivid earth tones. The film feels influenced by the works of Antonioni or Melville with Clooney reminding us of Alain Delon in the way he maintains and contains his character.
Surrounded by Swedish and Italian actors that are foreign to his typical audience, it’s refreshing to see Clooney commit to such an introverted and introspective role. He has shown in the past that he can handle witty rat-a-tat banter but here it’s all about what he can hold back and keep under his breath, communicating solely through body language. Even the action is propelled by erupted emotion, once contained by years of composure. It’s probably the closest Clooney will come to James Bond, his character even carries with him a Walther PPK pistol just like 007.  His Jack is more brittle and worn than Bond, leading to some heartbreaking results.
Both Corbijn and Joffe do well to let the vast landscapes become a living and breathing character that feels just as haunting and beautiful as the characters. They also allow the actors to show who they are instead of spelling it all out for us, which is why the film may seem slow for American audiences. So be it. While the story isn’t that unpredictable, including typical conventions like the hooker with the heart of gold, the kindly priest and a dogged man on the run, at least we’re captivated as to why they will be conveyed.
There may be a minority of Americans who allow themselves to be lost in “The American” with its glacial pace but maybe they’ll be reminded of that “slow and steady” saying. The payoff  for them is in watching a story unfold all on its own with Corbijn’s images lingering long after the end credits.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. windi permalink
    September 16, 2010 5:43 am

    Definitely sounds like a movie I’d like! I’ll have to find time to go see this one at the theater. 🙂


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