A film review by Craig J. Koban September 8, 2010
2010, R, 95 mins.
2010, R, 95 mins.
Jack / Edward: George Clooney / Pavel Johan Leysen / Clara: Violante
Placido / Fr. Benedetto: Paolo Bonacelli / Ingrid: Irina Björklund
Too many familiar
elements hold back Anton Corbjin’s THE AMERICAN from greatness.
This assassin thriller is made up of spare parts and ingredients from many other
similar genre films: the
world weary, battle hardened, emotionally vacant and obsessively focused
hitman/killer that grows tired of his lifestyle and tries to redeem
himself from his past sins, but only after he has finished the obligatory
“final mission” of his career.
Oh, also throw in the hooker with the proverbial “heart of gold”
– a sinner in her own respects - that will introduce herself into his
fractured and morose life to eventually serve as a beacon of positive
change for the man. In the
end, they both will act as catalysts for each other to seek out
new respective lives; love will psychologically rescue them both.
THE AMERICAN intimately invites
us into its compact and grim world while it, oddly enough, holds viewers back at an
film is an absolute bravura exercise in restrained filmmaking economy:
this is not another one of those summertime, dime-a-dozen action-thrillers
that hyperactively pulsate with seizure-inducing editing and camera work
and a thunderously frantic pace designed for viewers with A.D.H.D.
No, THE AMERICAN – unlike so many over thrillers of its kind –
demonstrates a leisurely, casual, and exemplary well-crafted and patient
eye for narrative build up and suspense. It
generates tension and an evocative sense of mood not through visual
gimmicks and high-octane action, but rather on a sparse aesthetic style
and a rather slow and methodical unfolding of its story to foster our involvement. Yet, for as
efficiently tailored and painstakingly assembled as the film is, THE
AMERICAN is still a work that is tainted with rudimentary
formulas and conventions. It
paradoxically looks and feels both new and old.
However, the one
redeeming aspect of this redemption thriller is the presence of George
Clooney, who has time and time again revealed himself to not only
be one of the biggest stars of the movies, but also one of its more
dependable and authentic performers.
I have always lamented on how much focus critics give Clooney
for playing ultra suave, cool, and collected men that ooze charisma (the
actor can certainly do this in his sleep), but he never gets as much
attention for how rock solid he is for inhabiting deeply flawed and tragically
internalized personas. Looking at recent
films like MICHAEL CLAYTON, SYRIANA,
and UP IN THE AIR you gain an
immediate sense of how strong he is at playing parts that have refined facades, but nonetheless
hide lonely and deeply introverted psyches: these men are empty vessels
that may or may not be able to liberate themselves from their own isolation
to show how incredibly proficient he is at dialing into these types of
characters with an understated and subdued edge and menace.
He has perhaps not played such an uncomfortable, unethical, and
coldly unemotional character as he does here in THE AMERICAN.
He's a hitman/weapons manufacturer that lacks most of his characteristic
Hollywood charm and appeal and instead is a disturbingly
gloomy and dark figure that goes about his life as an assassin with an
unhealthy fixation and detached edge.
He is a man that exists primarily within the dour and meaningless
bubble of his own life of ruthlessly killing people: he has no real emotional ties to
anyone and shows no real passion for anything outside of his vocation.
All he knows, and knows with a bitter and steely eye certainty, is
the clandestine art of execution. Much like
his character from UP IN THE AIR, Clooney’s assassin here slowly comes
to the realization that his life is one of negated significance with each
passing day. Late in the game
– perhaps a bit too late – both characters try to crawl back out of
their pits of depravation to reclaim their lost humanity.
The assassin in
question is named Jack and after an introductory scene that ends with macabre
results he decides to lay low in Italy to evade a series of Swedes that
are out to kill him. At the
request of his boss, Pavel (played with a gravel-voiced and austerely
Leysen), Jack is told to hold up in the Italian villa of Sulmona where he
is to wait for his next orders and assignment.
When he is not frequenting the coffee shops, restaurants, and sites
of his new home, Jack has to find a way to collect the necessary parts –
under the radar of the authorities and townsfolk– to create a made-to-order weapon
for a special client. He
meets this client, Mathilde (the slinky and sensually dangerous Thekla
Reuten) at a nearby café and she gives him all of the specs she desires,
which Jack agrees to with little hesitation.
During his initial
gun manufacturing mission Jack inadvertently makes a few friends, of
sorts: he interacts with a local priest, Father Benedetto
(Paolo Bonacelli) that slowly begins to act as a moral compass for him
(the Father has his suspicions as to what Jack actually does for a living, even though
Jack remains aloof with the priest’s frequent inquiries into the
matter). As much as he tries
to evade the priest, Jack has a tougher time staying away from a local
whore named Clara (Violante Pacido, pulsating raw carnality) that he meets
on his frequent trips to the local brothel.
His early visits show little hope for a romantic fling
between the pair (“I’m here for my pleasure, not yours,” he
impersonally declares to her during one evening), but he begins to find
himself more and more emotionally drawn to this woman.
Clara, despite her own ethically questionable line of work, emerges as
a sweet and caring figure in Jack’s hollow existence and it is through
her compassion towards him and the priest's insistence on the power of
confession to heal all wounds that sends Jack on a road to possible
redemption. The problem with
his emotional journey is that he must embark on "one last mission" for his
boss, which proves to have an added level of complexity that may impede
his ability to escape with Clara forever.
Corbijn, a Dutch
photographer and director, creates such sumptuously stunning location scenery in the way he frames the exquisite
villa, which has both an aura of hospitality while evoking
an uneasy sensation of the unknown. Corbijn
also creates an opening prologue to the film rich with nail biting
tension and intrigue that, much like the rest of the film, is established
with a somber atmosphere and a deliberate sense of visual control.
In it Clooney’s Jack is in the middle of the arctic terrain of
Sweden and manages to not only eliminate two hired hoods that were going
to murder him, but he also ruthlessly murders the woman he was
sleeping with beforehand (she
was a completely innocent victim, but Jack is too sadistically withdrawn
to leave any witnesses). The
emotional frostiness of this scene – launching Jack as persona that’s
unflinchingly uncompassionate – mirrors its environment.
The film also
creates a precisely examined look at Jack’s daily life under a
fastidious microscope, which results in some of THE AMERICAN’s most
compelling and hypnotic moments. We have scenes that focus of Jack’s intense isolation
from the outside world with a level of anaesthetizing monotony (whether it
be in showing daily exercise drills in his minimally furnished flat to the
ingenious ways that he finds the necessary parts to construct a weapon and
its noise muzzling silencer), but they are all crucial for showcasing this
man as one of compulsive ritual and habit.
Even though the film has a decided European flavor and considerably beautiful and expansive production
AMERICAN is a taut and tightly confined cogitation on how pathetically
diminutive Jack’s world is: he keeps his life so compactly secure and
secretive from all others around him, but its suffocating nature begins
to catch the better of him. The
manner Corbijn captures this lonely and astringent essence alongside
Clooney’s scrupulously under cranked and inwardly focused performance
really makes the film really stand out.
just wish that THE AMERICAN didn't play out its underlining "love will save
a killer's soul" so perfunctorily. Violante Pacido’s prostitute – although highly pleasing
to look at – is painted with too many broad strokes (she’s an
angel-in-the-waiting to help ease Jack out of his existentialist career/life
crisis, but she is not really defined much more beyond that of a
convenient plot point). Also, Jack’s relationship with the priest feels more
manufactured for the necessity of driving the story forward than one that
feels authentic and could have been developed more thoroughly (the film is
a narratively short 90-plus minutes, which leaves many of its relationship
dynamics feeling unfinished). Finally,
the final mission that Jack takes on culminates in a fairly predictable
manner, although I was fond for how the film concludes on a final moment
and shot that approaches poetic and soulful tragedy.
THE AMERICAN is good medicine for those that have grown weary with
the onslaught of overproduced, exasperatingly action heavy and mindless
thrillers that Hollywood lazily churns out as of late: it’s so estimably
retrained on a discreet performance, directorial, and psychological level. However, THE AMERICAN would have been that much better served
to us if it didn’t regurgitate old story arcs and themes, which makes
the final product modestly successful, but a somewhat mixed bag artistic