Thursday, September 16, 2010

The American

Director: Anton Corbijn
Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, Irena Bjorklund, Johan Leysen
Running Time: 105 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's bound to be some exaggeration in terms of just how little happens plot-wise in the anti-thriller The American. But yes, not a lot happens and what does is mostly meant to be inferred by viewers, many of whom would say the "action" is limited to George Clooney drinking coffee, loading a gun, doing push-ups, sleeping with a hooker and staring solemnly. And they wouldn't be completely wrong. You could throw around words like "boring," "dull," and "slow" all day long but fairer, far more accurate descriptions would be "measured" "methodical" and "deliberate." The 1960's/70's Steve McQueen inspired retro-style poster hinted at this, but anyone expecting a Jason Bourne-style action adventure from the commercials will find themselves watching what more closely resembles a European art house film.

I couldn't help but laugh to myself in the darkened theater knowing that when the lights came up the complaining and cursing would begin from those who felt tricked by savvy mis-marketing into making this the number one movie in America. Had this been released thirty years ago it still would have been the number one movie in the country with the key difference being a far warmer audience reaction and probably a few Oscar nominations. But it wasn't. It's being released NOW, posing the very interesting question of just how much art we want in our entertainment and vice versa. That this effort legitimately feels like the genuine article and not just some self-indulgent tribute only adds more fire to that debate. While I can appreciate complaints of its painfully slow pace, I found it's lack of plot refreshing because this is exactly the kind of film Hollywood always manages to screw up with way too much of one. If this is a failure (which it isn't by the way) let's at least just admit it's the kind of intelligent failure all involved should be applauded for attempting, especially Clooney, who makes a brave choice in picking a project he had to know would alienate much of his fan base. It was a huge risk for him to tackle this but in doing so conclusively proves he's a talented actor fully committed to his craft.

Without much of a plot to speak of, what there is of one concerns hitman and weapons expert "Jack" or "Edward" (Clooney) depending on what alias he feels like going by that day. After narrowly surviving a messy sniper attack in Sweden, Jack/Edward is ordered by his boss Pavel (Johan Leysen) to inconspicuously settle in small Italian village and not make any friends while awaiting his next assignment. Said assignment is constructing a hire-powered silencer for a female assassin named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), but he's pestered by local priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) and begins to fall in love with Clara (Violante Placido), a beautiful but potentially untrustworthy prostitute in the village's run-down bordello. Yet the film is about none of those things, which comes as a relief because if it was this would be just another routine hitman thriller. Instead, it's a character study and mood piece more interested in letting us fill in the blanks. None of those details mentioned above are ever explicitly stated during the picture and there isn't much in the way of dialogue. There are exactly three action scenes, two of which occur in the film's first and final ten minutes. We're left to figure out everything by carefully observing Jack/Edward.

The entire film is projected on Clooney's face. From him it can be gauged that this is really a redemptive story of a man who was once very good at what he did but lost his touch and is having a subtle attack of conscience. Now he wants out. The question is whether it's too late and at what price. It's rare for a lead actor to be asked to do as much with body language and facial expressions as Clooney does here, but he's up for it, responding with one of his quietest, most absorbing performances yet. Becoming a pro at portraying weathered, middle-age characters at a crossroads, he lifts pensive brooding to an art form. I never thought much of Clooney's work over the years but in the past couple he's really turned the corner to the point where I'm just about ready to sign up as a card carrying member of his fan club. He's an example of what can happen when an actor dedicates themselves to making smart, challenging choices that play to (or in this case maybe against) their strengths as a performer. In his filmography this should fit somewhere between Syriana and Michael Clayton in terms of genre but it isn't needlessly complicated like the former, and while it does share some of the same throwback thriller qualities as the latter (and also has a sensational final scene), it's more cerebral than suspenseful.

Even if I'm unintentionally making it sound like I loved the movie, I didn't. It could have been tighter, although as slow as it is at 105 minutes I was strangely never bored or felt it dragged. That's probably because the scenery is so nice to look at and it's tonally on target, but at the same time it's important to not overpraise former music video director Anton Corbijn for basically using beautiful photography, an impressive score and topless women to distract us from the fact that the plot is irrelevant, if not worthless. Still at the same time it's an interesting change to to be freed from those conventional constraints, earning him points for delivering something so completely unlike what's usually out there. This experiment makes a strong case for how moviegoers can save themselves a lot of aggravation by spending five seconds checking the internet movie database for info to avoid being manipulated by false advertising, a justified tactic considering no one would have seen it otherwise. The picture itself is such a slow burn that it unsurprisingly takes a while to absorb and settle in the mind, so it's more than possible it experiences a resurgence down the road as the point where Clooney the actor officially surpassed Clooney the movie star. The more you consider it, the more depth it has, the more sense it makes and the harder it becomes to shake. It's not for everyone, but The American succeeds at leaving a haunting, indelible impression.

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