George Clooney, Irina Björklund, Johan Leysen, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, Violante Placido
(Focus Features; US theatrical: 1 Sep 2010 (General release); 2010)
There are no high octane chase scenes. There’s merely some elaborate slow burn cat and mouse set inside the antique walls of an ancient Italian city. There’s also no viable villain, though our hero does spend a lot of time trying to avoid some gun totting baddies as well as his own brooding dysfunctional personality. There’s also limited contact with the outside world, most of the suspense coming directly from our lead’s crisis of conscience and his inability to be intimate. Toss in numerous nude scenes featuring a fetching Mediterranean starlet, a major superstar mancrush at the helm, and a savvy artist turned filmmaker behind the lens and you’ve got the makings of The American, a film destined to be loathed or loved by those expecting thrills, but winding up with something completely different and unique.
We first meet “Jack” on holiday in Sweden, a ‘friend’ and lover in his bed. Within moments, his rest has been hijacked by killers bent on ending his life. Taking matters into his own hands, the trained assassin is soon on the run, looking to contact point Pavel for help. He suggests a small town in the mountains of Italy. Rejecting the first location, Jack winds up in a sleepy little burg in Abruzzo with intimate coffee shops, a kindly priest, and an active brothel. There, our hitman meets Clara, a hooker who seems more honest than most. Hoping to get out of this life once and for all, Jack agrees to one more job - and this time, he doesn’t even have to pull the trigger. Unfortunately, building a specialty weapon for a mysterious woman named Mathilde may indeed be his final hurrah - figuratively and literally.
You can tell almost immediately that The American is not going to be your typical genre entry. Call it the anti-thriller or “inaction” film and you’ve got some idea of what the collaboration of Clooney and director Anton Corbijn is going for. This is a meditation on a life lived without any close contact, where everyone is a potential danger and decisions about who to let in and who to destroy are quick and qualitative. From its foreign cast (Clooney is the only recognizable face among a small, intimate company) to the decision to keep most of the set-pieces isolated and unobtrusive, we get something that your average mainstream movie fan will definitely fuss over. They want to see their star in full bore bad-ass mode. What they get instead is a thoughtful, frustrating performance that borders on the sad instead of the suave.
This is Clooney aging gracefully, moving away from big budget stunt spectacle to focus instead on character and atmosphere - and he finds a perfect collaborator in Corbijn. A long time music video staple, the famed photographer brings his international aesthetic to the project, purposefully avoiding the elements that many recognize as part of the crime/espionage category. Instead, he wants to settle on the quieter moments, on the introspective sequences where Clooney’s Jack realizes how empty and unavoidably doomed his life really is. Juxtaposed against the old world charms of a perfect hideaway and the ethereal, carnal physicality of local call girl Clara, we get the yin and yang of the professional - beauty all around, blood the only result.
Corbijn’s control is amazing, considering the unspoken knowledge that the audience is antsy for bigger and bombastic. He will allow the camera to capture a fog-swept cityscape, or follow Clooney’s car as it makes the regular pilgrimage to a far off phone booth. This is a movie of specific visual beats - the twisting mountain roadways, the narrow stone alleys of the walled city, the one sentence phone conversations that rarely provide any information or comfort, the lingering nude shoots of Ms. Violante Placido. Forty years ago, this would be called revolutionary, a purposeful deconstruction of the archetypes necessary to make a conspiratorial good vs. evil experience. Now, it plays like a smug star turn, a huge celebrity’s ability to trade on his fame for a turn far off the well-beaten path.
Indeed, it was smart of Corbijn and Clooney to retrofit this concept into something more solid. Seeing the macho matinee idol essaying yet another killer with scattered scruples would have been beyond dull. But that doesn’t mean that The American is a revelation. Instead, it can frequently be a chore. There’s an inherent interest level in what Jack is capable of, especially when we learn how skilled he is at building custom weaponry. In said DIY sequences, Corbijn finds the right combination of detail and determination. It’s the lack of forward momentum elsewhere which does the movie in.
We are curious about Mathilde, even though she seems like a red herring right off the bat, and the priest offers up a nice bit of ethical diversion. The few ancillary characters we meet (a leery mechanic, a friendly America-bound friend of Clara’s) are intriguing, but offer little except minor expositional earmarks. What we really need are signposts, hints as to where this nondescript narrative has been and where it is taking us. They don’t have to be obvious or sprayed with bullets, but it would be nice if they were at least acknowledged. But Clooney and Corbijn are so busy painting the inner portraits and admiring the Abruzzo landscape that they forget to flesh out the plotpoints. It’s not a fatal approach, just a flawed one.
As a result, The American feels too experimental, too outside the norm to draw in the casual or the just curious. Instead, it feels slightly snobbish and a tad elitist. It suggests a level of cinematic culture that few have the attention span to establish. It’s magical, moody, and maddening, surreal, sensual and only semi-satisfying. Perhaps we’ve been so brainwashed by the micromanaged nature of modern Hollywood entertainment that it’s almost impossible to appreciate a project looking to purposefully avoid such by the numbers simplicity.
But what The American forgets is that, sometimes, the stereotyping is needed. You can only push a filmgoer so far outside their known creative comfort zone before they retaliate and tune out. For their part, Clooney and Corbijn have crafted a beautiful tone poem to a life unbalance and fraught with danger. Unfortunately, it may be too unusual for those it hopes to speak to and satisfy.