Monday, September 6, 2010

The American (***)

Directed by Anton Corbjin


When you consider the pacing of a film like The American, as well as the tone and the characterization, you soon realize how unsuccessful a film like this will be, unless its lead is one of the greatest movie stars of the last fifty years. It's the kind of movie that challenges the morals and (particularly) the attention spans of someone who would gladly see a George Clooney film just because he's in it. Whether or not this is one of Clooney's best films seems to be beside the point, because what can be said with a certainty is that this is probably one of the most challenging roles of his career, physically and emotionally.

Clooney plays Jack or Edward. He goes by both, but we never really learn which, if any, is his real name. At the opening of the film, he is vacationing in a Swedish cabin with a beautiful, nameless woman (Irina Björklund) and as they walk through the snowy mountains outside, they are suddenly attacked by two men with guns. With stunning efficiency, Jack/Edward is able to kill them all with a small gun he had hidden in his coat. The woman, overcome by shock, asks him in a panic why he has a gun and why they are being hunted. Jack/Edward responds by shooting her in the back. Leave no witnesses. Within five minutes of the film, we are completely aware of how cold and ruthless he treats matters of business.

After that mess, he is told by his boss, Pavel (Johan Leysen) to hide out in a small town in Italy and wait for one last job. Pavel expresses his disappointment with Jack (as he calls him), but tells him to meet with a woman named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). Edward (as she calls him) meets her in a public cafe, and she explains very matter-of-factly that she needs him to make a gun for her. Her criteria: the range of a rifle, the power of a machine gun, and the serviceable compactness of a handgun - oh yeah, and she wants a silencer. Edward agrees to make the gun as he relaxes in his small room which sits in an apartment at the top of a mountain village.

In between producing the gun, Jack/Edward strolls around the village and meets various people. One of them is Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), a polite, gregarious pastor who invites him into his home for dinner and wine. Benedetto explains to Jack that having God in your heart is the one thing that can save you from Hell. Jack doesn't take much of that advice to heart. He also comes across Clara (Violante Placido), a gorgeous prostitute who he begins to take a liking to. A strong relationship blooms between Edward and Clara, but as he gets closer and closer to finishing his final job, he worries if he ever will be able to get out of the crime world and hopes that he isn't forced to do to Clara what he had to do to the woman at the beginning of the film.

For its direct title, Clooney is the only thing that's actually American in the entire film. Even the sophomore film director Anton Corbjin (also made 2007's Control) hails from the Netherlands. Along with cinematographer Martin Ruhe, Corbjin photographs the enigmatic Italian hilltown Castel del Monte with such brilliant delicacy. The area's erratic angles and polished cobble stone roads form such a perfect locale to this film that it almost becomes a character in its own right. The film seems tuned in to the advantages of Italy's most beautiful landscapes, and Jack/Edward's tormented circumstance is perfectly suited for this tranquil, isolated location.

As far as character arcs go though, Jack or Edward is essentially a plateau. Not to say that he doesn't have a gradual change throughout the film, but the story does not seem concerned with helping him redeem his image. The film starts with him committing such a terrible act (mudering a woman he cares about), and I'm not sure if the audience could forgive him for this, if he wasn't played by George Clooney. And perhaps this is more honest to who Jack/Edward is as a person. I don't doubt that most contract killers will go throughout their entire lives without ever regretting their actions, but there are moments in The American that want it both ways. With the exception of falling in love, Jack/Edward never really acts humane, but the film seems to want us to accept him that way, even with his flaws.

Despite it all, Clooney does instill the character with as much emotion and gravitas as he can. Always known as an actor who relies on his charm, there are no witty remarks or pearly white smiles here. Chiseling himself into some of the best shape of his life, Clooney plays Jack/Edward like a smooth but paranoid machine; a professional so mechanical in his work, that seeing him express something like happiness feels extra-terrestrial. Jack/Edward does have one fatal flaw and that is his weakness for women and his willingness to fall in love easily. He should know, particularly after the film's opening moments, that being with a woman is putting her in a terribly vulnerable and dangerous situation, but when he is approached by the beautiful Clara, he cannot help himself. It's pretty hard to show a prostitute romance and make it seem authentic, but Clooney and Placido pull it off well.

I imagine that a film like The American has a relatively breezy shoot, since every shot and light set-up seems so excellently prepared and pre-planned. There is not a single image throughout the film that isn't handled with care. It's a welcome little movie, especially when the multiplexes are filled with drek like Machete and Going The Distance. There are moments that are drowsy and intentionally paced, moving with the speed of a Terrence Mallick picture, but you can appreciate the form and craft here. And while you don't get the charisma that we're used to from Clooney, you do see him challenging his screen persona like he never has before. Isn't that something worth watching?

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