Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Film Review: The American

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The American, the new thriller starring George Clooney, is an unexpected throwback to the action-adventure movies of the 1960s and ‘70s. The elements are all there: the amoral, taciturn hero; the deliberate, unforced pace; the melancholy, pseudo-existential, “that’s reality” atmosphere. Like those earlier films, The American makes terrific use of locations. The bulk of the picture was shot in and around Castel del Monte in the Abruzzo region of Italy, and the locale functions as a major character in the story. While it may seem a little beneath Clooney to take on a role that would have been tailor-made for Steve McQueen or Roy Scheider back in the day, he handles it comfortably enough. The American doesn’t strive to be anything more than an entertaining potboiler, but its style isn’t one that’s seen very often these days, and it’s refreshing.

Clooney’s character doesn’t really have a name. One character calls him Jack, he tells another his name is Edward, and a couple of others give him the nickname Mr. Butterfly. He’s an assassin and weapons specialist based in Europe, and it’s never made clear whether he’s in the employ of government intelligence, organized crime, or big business. He’s also a ruthless son-of-a-bitch, a person the filmmakers want seen as all but beyond redemption--less than five minutes into the film, he murders an innocent woman for no reason other than expediency. His work, though, is taking its toll on him. It allows for no friends, no family, and no home, and it’s clearly burning him out. The contact for his employer tells him take it a little easy for a while; he is ordered to set himself up in a remote Italian village and start work on a customized rifle for a fellow assassin named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten).

It’s clear that, despite the minimally demanding task, he has no idea of how to relax, even in such a loose, picturesque setting. His daily existence is quite spartan: an undecorated, minimally furnished apartment; morning exercise; work; occasional dinners and coffee at a local restaurant. Mathilde, whom he sees once every couple of weeks, is all business, and he has little contact with anyone other than her. The exceptions are an elderly priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and Clara (Violante Placido), a thirtyish prostitute at the brothel he frequents.

The story’s drama has two parts. The first comes from watching this Mr. Butterfly emerge from his cocoon, and seeing if he can find the redemption the opening sequence would seem to have put beyond him. He and the priest become friends (and in a nice twist, the priest plays confessor to him instead of the other way around). He also falls in love with Clara, who stops charging him for their sessions and starts seeing him outside of work. The second part of the drama comes from watching this budding happiness butt up against the reasons for his emotional cocoon in the first place. He’s more than justified in being guarded. As the story progresses, associates of the people killed in the film’s opening section track him to the village. Worse, he doesn’t know how they found him. Does his employer want him dead, and could they be his employer’s proxies, or could Clara have betrayed him to them? Questions also arise of whether he is Mathilde’s ultimate target, and is the rifle he’s building the intended instrument of his own murder? The tensions build to what is more or less a cards-on-the-table climax. Everything is resolved, although only as much as they need to be--some ambiguities satisfyingly remain. And one is glad to see the finale embrace the fatalism that gave the film’s antecedents a good deal of their unsentimental appeal.

Director Anton Corbijn does well by Rowan JoffĂ©’s efficient script. (The film is based on a novel by Martin Booth.) The action is clearly staged, and Corbijn does a terrific job of integrating it with the gorgeous Italian locations. The casting is strong, and I especially liked the subtle way Corbijn plays Violante Placido and Thekla Reuten off each other. The two never have a scene together, but one is always aware of them as the two women in the Clooney character’s life. (The scene where the Clooney and Reuten characters test the rifle he’s building suggests the possibility of her being a love interest; there’s a palpable--though understated--sexual tension between them.) Reuten has an elegant beauty, but she’s cool and hard, with all the personality of a mannequin. The contrast between that and Placido’s warmth and expressiveness makes the Clara character all the more appealing. One wishes Corbijn and Joffe had found opportunities for Clooney to show some of his trademark charm and humor--he’s almost as heavy-spirited as he was in Michael Clayton--but one recognizes that levity isn’t much in keeping with the character. And Clooney is quite capable of keeping this action role interesting even without his smile.

One has to admit that The American is a retrograde film in most respects, and not terribly ambitious. Watching it, one occasionally gets the feeling that the filmmakers were following a checklist of the characteristics of the ‘60s and ‘70s films the movie recalls. However, I’ve always been fond of those films’ style, and that style is welcome even when it feels calculated.