American, The (United States, 2010)

September 02, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
American, The Poster

There are two kinds of thrillers - action-oriented endeavors such as those popularized by James Bond and Jason Bourne, and slow-burn motion pictures that rely less on pyrotechnics and gadgets and more on psychology. The American belongs in the latter category. With an unhurried pace and a focus on character over action or plot, this film takes us into the mind and life of a hardened assassin and follows the story to its natural conclusion. The tale is straightforward but many questions, perhaps tangential to the core narrative, remain unanswered once the screen has faded to black. The American ironically comes with a European flavor, not only because it was filmed overseas but because the style reflects the kind of movies favored by art house and film festival audiences.

The star (and only "name" actor) is George Clooney, who is also listed as a co-producer. Clooney is one of the most charismatic thespians working today, and he appreciates challenges (witness his participation in the remake of Solaris). He is sometimes drawn to films with little or no box office potential because he believes in the material. This is one such case. We often associate Clooney with upbeat, fun-loving roles, but the man he plays in The American is the hollow shell of an individual - one who has severed all emotional connections in order to maintain his edge as a hired killer. He shoots a lover in the back of the head because she's in the wrong place at the wrong time. Later, he informs a prostitute that she doesn't have to act when sleeping with him. "I'm here for my pleasure, not yours." It's hard not to like a Clooney character, but this one comes close. He's a cold, hard person and identifying with him is a difficult task - until he begins the long, slow crawl back to humanity. That's his ultimate goal in The American, even though he may not recognize it at times: to regain his soul. Redemption, even when approached in such a roundabout way, is always a worthy destination for a motion picture character.

With the exception of a prologue set in Sweden, The American transpires in Italy, where Jack (Clooney) is lying low to escape the notice of some Swedes who are out to kill him. His boss, Pavel (Johan Leysen), gives him an assignment while he's in hiding: develop a made-to-order special weapon for a client. Jack meets Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) at a café and she provides him with the specifications. While in this town, Jack also interacts with a local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who advises him that confession is good for the soul, and he becomes involved with a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), who likes him enough to consider waiving her fee. It is through these two that Jack sees a possible way back from the emotional brink upon which his future teeters.

Movies like The American generate tension not through fast cuts and adrenaline-pumping action sequences, but by the slow escalation of dread as pieces of a puzzle fall into place. Although we know almost nothing about Jack's background (beyond his occupation) and even less about who Pavel is and how he comes by his clients, we gradually become aware that such things are red herrings. What matters is how all the characters relate to each other as they are now. The key to understanding and unraveling the mysteries of The American lies not in the past but in the present. The answers are easily arrived at for those who pay attention and meaningful in their impact.

The director is Anton Corbijn, whose previous body of work includes a large number of high-profile music videos and the 2007 feature Control, about the life and death of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis. Corbijn brings a moodiness to this endeavor and his shooting of Castel del Monte is inspired - this unconventional location is imbued with a mixture of danger and Old World charm under Corbijn's stewardship. Most importantly, Corbijn ensures that the film's pace is appropriate to the material - not so slow that viewers lose interest and not so rapid that details are lost.

From an acting standpoint, Clooney is the centerpiece, although it's unclear whether this intentionally obtuse performance will find favor with his mainstream fans. Violante Placido exudes sensuality as the prostitute who dangles the possibility of love in front of Jack (while packing a pistol in her purse). It's a winning portrayal and the actress obviously did not require a "no nudity" clause in her contract. Johan Leysen, whose Pavel remains an enigma, is most notable for his pitted, weathered face - he looks a little like James Coburn.

The film's release date - the Wednesday before Labor Day weekend, where movies go to die - is evidence that Focus Features is unconvinced there's much of a mainstream audience for The American. Despite the presence of a major movie star in the cast (likely the reason it's being released in multiplexes), the material is suited to specialty audiences - those whose tastes gravitate toward the cerebral work of Le Carre and Deighton rather than the visceral thrills of Fleming and Ludlum. Anyone who understands what The American offers should come away pleased with the final product.

American, The (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2010-09-01
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Violence)
Subtitles: In English and Italian with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1