The audience that I happened to see The American with didn't much care for it. Audible snores began around a third of the way through; a group of eight people apparently gave up and walked out 90 minutes into it. As the credits rolled, I felt compelled to wake another man who had fallen asleep nearby; god only knew how long it would be until the cleaning crew came in and found him. Granted, this was at a midnight showing on a Tuesday, but there was still a palpable sense of un-excitement in the air, perhaps as a reaction to the fact that it's being marketed as a thriller, while it's actually quite the opposite.
Which is a bit too bad, because the movie, taken on its own merits, aside from the "this is an action movie!" trailer, is a genuinely compelling look at a man adrift in a world that he's outgrown. George Clooney stars as Jack, who is theoretically an assassin (although we never see him take out a contract). After he becomes the target of a failed hit in Sweden (forcing him into a course of action that is almost remarkably brutal), he retires to the Italian countryside to lay low. Unable to trust even his handler, he reluctantly agrees to perform one final task for him: to custom-build a rifle that another assassin will use in a hit of her own.
What follows is a lengthy character study of Jack and three of the people he encounters in his small town: Father Benedetto, the local priest, who's both a bit too curious and a bit too observant for his own good; Clara, the hooker with whom he falls in love; and Mathilde, his fellow assassin, whom he keeps at arm's length. One of the interesting things about the film is that Jack lets these people into his life at all; the hit in Sweden should've reinforced the danger of letting people get close, as his handler plainly points out, but there's something telling in his inability to stick to the solitude that his work seems to demand. There's a neediness to the character that is generally unexplored in most movies about assassins; we get the sense that the years (decades?) spent traveling around the world and killing people have left him convinced that life isn't worth living alone, or at least that it's not possible for him to do so. But, of course, if you let people in, the greater the chance that your enemies will find you...
Clooney is as good as ever as Jack, and even though the character's backstory is not examined, it's a credit to his performance that the audience cannot help but wonder at his history, and not just his exploits as an assassin. There's a remarkable sex scene between he and Clara in which he winds up performing a sex act on a prostitute that one would generally wind up paying to receive. That would be remarkable enough; that he then turns around and admonishes her for what he assumes was a fake orgasm, and tells her "I just want you to be you while I'm here. I came to get pleasure, not give it," is what's really telling. There's already an interesting story somewhere in the shadows of this character about his need for intimacy (beyond just sex) and how that relates to the fact that, as a wandering assassin, he'll probably never find a genuine form of it, and this scene is a remarkable micro-examination of the psychological complexities of the man.
Another interesting aspect of the film is its remarkable quietness, which only rarely brings any kind of music into play, and even then, the score is exceedingly spare, usually featuring only a solo piano. That's a welcome change of pace from the usual sweeping score that accompanies these kinds of films, but then, it fits with the subdued qualities of the film itself. Which isn't to say that the sound design doesn't have its faults: Jack spends a good amount of time walking the streets of his little village, but the foley work that was done just sounds off, as if the artists couldn't find a way to replicate that specific sharp-yet-echoey sound caused by leather shoes striking stone steps in narrow pathways, and instead substituted a more generic footstep sound that just rings false.
Which is too bad, as director Anton Corbijn (whose career has mostly consisted of music videos up until now, which is an odd thing to say about a 55-year-old director) strives for verisimilitude throughout much of the rest of the movie: scenes that take place in cars are actually shot in real cars being driven through the countryside, for example, and he manages to avoid most of the over-the-top action sequences that typify your usual Bourne knockoff (for better or worse, depending on your level of patience). Which isn't to say that there isn't a real sense of danger to the movie; Jack himself is unsure of whom he can trust, and great pains are taken to ensure that the motives and backgrounds of the characters with whom he associates are called into question.
This winds up pointing to one of the film's weaknesses: although his desire to be close to someone has cost lives in the past, Jack easily slides back into the dangerous business of intimacy when it clearly threatens his own life. In his physical actions, he is portrayed as the typically paranoid cinematic agent that we've all come to recognize: checking the street before exiting his house to ensure that no one is nearby, scanning crowds and noting anything suspicious, etc. It's a curious dichotomy, then, that he's apparently incapable of acting on suspicious behavior by those he's intimate with; there are times when the prudent thing for him to do would obviously be to cut his ties and move to a new town, and yet he persists in flirting with danger. It's a bit hard to reconcile the two sides of the man, but that is perhaps an intentional character decision.
The American is, to be sure, not everyone's cup of tea. It's more a character study than an action film, and what little action there is is portrayed unsentimentally and is doled out in minute-long chunks once an hour or so. This is a movie that, at times, makes Krzysztof Kieslowski looks like Michael Bay. I've heard it referred to as an "anti-thriller", and that description is apt; there seems to be little chance that the film was not intentionally crafted as a kind of rebuke to audience expectations for a movie about an assassin that stars George Clooney (and here we might get a hint of slyness in the choice to call it The American). If you want thousands of rounds of ammunition to clang off the floors of a church while doves fly by in slow-motion, this isn't your film: if you're in the mood for lengthy discussions about sin and God, and pointed references to the symbolism of butterflies, then The American might be right up your alley. It's a bizarre movie, but a bizarrely compelling one.
The American Trailer
George Clooney is an assassin who wants out...but we all know there's only one way "out."
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