Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The American (2010)


Every year a handful of rather curious films make their way into the public foray of wide release. These films are often distinguishable from your grade A, prime Hollywood blockbuster by the even more aberrant phrases which accompany reviews of them. Most notably phrases like "deliberately slow," which of course comes in strict confrontation with the films that are "accidentally slow..." most likely due to some sort of crass infection (or having seen one too many Twilight films). Thus, ladies and gentlemen, I present for your viewing pleasure, or agony depending on personal preference, The American.

The tale of an assassin for hire going into hiding, on the run from a mysterious foe, is an old one we all know too well. These days they're often marked by the dire need for our hero, or often anti-hero, to wipe out entire villages worth of foes in an effort to either prove their innocence, or no longer be cost effective to hunt (takes lots of money to train a good spy, shame to train them all only to be killed by the one you paid good money to train and now want dead). In that respect, The American quite handily sidesteps the modern mold.

Built more on atmosphere than modern thrills, The American is moody, taut, and without judgment. Our hero is solicitous by nature and the path he has chosen. His apparent distaste toward his past derives from the consequences of his actions, not necessarily the moral ambiguity of them. He sees little wrong in killing, as he feels justified whenever he does so (though this could easily be a case of self-delusion - given his attitude).

Clooney is spot on as the dispassionate lead, Jack. Jack is a man built on repetition, and director Anton Corbijn aptly captures that. It is for that fact alone that many may find Jack to be a drawling and uninteresting character. He visits only the same girl at the same brothel, partakes in routine exercises, and handles time consuming, seemingly monotonous, fastidious tasks (such as the creation of a new gun from scratch). Corbijn's direction realizes all those activities, along with Jack's interaction with the folk of the small town in which he resides, and budding relationship with the prostitute.

Make no mistake, unlike many films which would pounce this motif in a moment, The American steers far away from the generic "small town rallies behind stranger whose become 'one of them,'" in favor of the more subtle one on one relationships that affect Jack's life. His interactions with the local religious leader, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), new client Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), and prostitute Clara (Violante Placido) adversely affect his life. In that they merely open up the wounds (metaphorically and literally) that he keeps hidden deep inside. At the same time he presents upon them the very things they wish to shy away from in themselves.

The supporting cast displays deft timing and understanding of what they represent to the story (granted quite of a few of the female cast spend a good deal of the film topless - exception to Thekla Reuten). Their travels in and out of the tale are timely, and based on the need of Jack at that particular moment. Benedetto offers him guidance, Mathilde presents something to do, and Clara caps it off by delivering affection and companionship.

As a director, Anton Corbijn shows a decidedly strong knack for capturing the simple beauty of Italy without over glorifying it. It is far too often the case of European-located (American starred) dramas/thrillers/comedies that they feature more as advertisements for how much better everything is over there (especially if you're rich) than they are ever the aforementioned categories. The American manages to do some of that without being preachy, and still analyzing the seedy underbelly of the world in which it resides. There's a complex series of characteristics that define Corbijn's Italy, from violence, sex, and monotony to simplicity, wine, romance, and sweeping landscapes.

The slowness of The American can be defended through the factor that it seeks to capture them all without forcing the issue. I felt the movie's run time of an hour and forty five minutes perfectly fit the mood Corbijn created. The music of Herbert Gronemeyer, with his first score since the 1980's, perfectly matched it and helped carry along its more winding moments.

Despite what some people wish, I don't think The American needed any more violence/action than what it presents. The violence isn't what's important and it's spaced evenly enough throughout the film, with intermittent moments of tension to keep the ball rolling. I was rather taken by the characterizations, and wish, if anything, Corbijn had dedicated more moments to their exposition than the minutes he would spend focusing on Jack cleaning a barrel (or filling a can with bullets).

Because of those differing moments, I struggle to claim The American as an excellent film reaching into the realm of this year's upper echelon. I found it perfectly acceptable, engaging, and intense for my needs (in all honesty, coming off a Yasujiro Ozu bend helps make lots of things feel speedy), but the movie felt aloof enough to leave me a bit disconnected. I want to be engaged and enthralled in the world, but much like its main character I felt as if a long outstretched arm prevented it. The devil is in the details, and The American avoids the details of its plot in favor of imagery. To many this may be a sign of greatness, but at times I found it frustrating.

All in all, The American summarizes to a stagnant thriller with enough juice in the engine to keep moving, and more than enough characters to maintain my level of interest. Those who prefer action with witty-satirical heroes will likely find little to enjoy in Corbijn's tale. But if you're willing to give it a go and accept it for what it is, there's plenty of emotion and depth to behold.

Film Credits:
Directed By: Anton Corbijn
Written By: Rowan Joffe
Based on the Novel By: Martin Booth

8 better thoughts:

The Mad Hatter said...

I liked this a bit more than you did, but I think that comes from my odd fascination with "the details" and watching someone like Mister Butterfly intricately do what he does so well.

Anonymous said...

Great review, even though I liked this a little less than you did. For me it lacked that certain something.

SugaryCynic said...

good review, I really need to get my hands on this already

Yojimbo_5 said...

Good review, although I....

Hmm. This one affected me, even as I was aware of its flaws (the eye-rolling fluttering metaphors, for instance). I LIKE the slow pace (although the audience I saw it with didn't and were very vocal about it afterwards)..."aloof" is the perfect word, btw...and I like a story where a mechanical man tries to become more human.

That, and Violante Placido is HAWT!

Univarn said...

@Mad Ah, I intended to draw some butterfly illusions in my review, but it was getting long enough already. I like the intricate parts, but I would have enjoyed (as per my usual style) for more character moments. The conversations he had with the other characters I thought were quite revealing and interesting.

@5plitreel Well, at least we know that certain something isn't topless women.

@Sugary Go for it. I'm not sure it'll fit right into your mold, but it could work.

@Yojimbo We can all agree the number of women in this film who weren't lookers were few and far between. I don't think the marketing did the film's reputation any favors playing up the 'gunman' on the run aspect.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Sounds like my kind of movie, I like quite introspective films with a brain, I also enjoy films with emphasis on the visuals.

Clooney has been making some truly excellent films lately, I recently got to catch him Up In the Air and loved his performance, I think he has grown as an actor since his Return of the Killer Tomatoes/Batman and Robin days. He definetly shows more emotion in his performances where in the past he had one expression in his face for every emotion.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Almost caught this in theaters, but I will now that it's on DVD.

Candice Frederick said...

i really wish i could have liked this more. i liked your review though. i just couldn't get into this one.

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