Photo courtesy of Focus Features
Review by Ryan Wilson
You know the summer movie season has ended when the plots on screen slow to a collective, reflective crawl, when characters (and the actors portraying them) stop their hard-charging and catch-phrasing and begin to brood over the ambiguity that is their predicament in life. Something about the chill in the autumn air can cause even the most pragmatic action hero to stop and consider, if not his/her mortality, then his/her place in the two hours that is a screen life.
This year the film that best exemplifies this change of mood and season has to be The American, which stars George Clooney as an assassin entering the winter of his profession. His being chased across Europe by some very persistent Swedes looking for payback isn't nearly as bothersome as his own midlife crisis. Clooney's assassin can handle all the gun-play and danger; it's the isolation of his life that utterly consumes him, and us.
The movie is almost the exact opposite of what we expect in a thriller involving assassins. For one it isn't very thrilling, not in the traditional way we've come to see globetrotting guns for hire. Once he becomes a target, Clooney's assassin simply lays low in a quaint Italian villa, where he begins awkward relations with a town priest and a town prostitute named Clara.
I'd call this a character study, but we don’t get much by way of character here. We don't get any of Clooney's back story aside from a snowy opening sequence involving a brunette woman he's sharing time with. We don't even know his real name. He goes by either Jack or as Clara calls him "Mr. Butterfly," after his one hobby aside from shooting people. With the gray forming upon his temples, Clooney's assassin isn’t so much a mystery to be solved as he is a handsome prop in the hands of minimalist director Anton Corbijn.
Corbijn relies heavily on visuals, which is not surprising because he has directed some of the most striking music videos for bands like Coldplay and Depeche Mode. If you cared about the art of music videos back in the 1990s, chances are you saw Corbijn’s work. His best work in that form might be U2’s video for the song "One," in which lead singer Bono stares unabashedly at the camera while mouthing the lyrics. Corbijn similarly dwells on Clooney sitting at cafes and resting in his room. Clooney, like Bono, is obviously an icon by now, and Corbijn seems to want his audience to soak him in for so long that we might somehow reconfigure what he means to us.
Corbijn also designed several classic album covers before directing, most notably U2's The Joshua Tree, in which the band stares philosophically across the Joshua Tree national desert. Clooney’s relationship with landscape is also pronounced in The American. Like an Irish band in the American southwest, Clooney stands out in the small town, making him larger than the place.
Corbijn also repeatedly places Clooney in nature because nature represents a peace that eludes him. The film begins at a tranquil snowy cabin, which he needs to abandon, and in Italy he finds what can only be described as an Eden, where he takes two versions of Eve. The first is a fellow assassin who has hired him to build a rifle. When he takes her to the spot we have the best scene of the film, as the two trade tensions as they test fire the rifle. The second Eve is prostitute Clara, who brazenly embraces the wildness of the place by stripping off her clothes. Clooney’s assassin, however, is too wary of the first Eve to trust the second.
As a work of pure visual composition, The American is a pleasure. The film will no doubt please other filmmakers and those film schools seeking new fodder to teach subtext. Mainstream audiences, however, may find all of this elegance…well…boring.
The American runs the risk of taking itself too seriously.
But then we've seen the aging, soul-sore assassin played with irony before. John Cusack played him for dark laughs in 1997's Gross Point Blank, taking him back to his high school reunion. More recently Pierce Brosnan traded in his 007 role for the chance to play a disturbed hit man in 2005's The Matador. Brosnan's hit man craved normalcy and even visited a couple in suburban Denver, again for laughs. I liked both of those films, but it's good to see the gravity put back into the assassin. If you really think about it, shouldn't he have less character than more?
In The American the character isn't the point. Even the star power of George Clooney gets washed away, along with the plot twists and the action that the movie's trailer promises. Call it back to basics, call it overly ambitious, call it so smart it's dull, The American, just as its title suggests, is completely indefinite. I call it the end of summer.
Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. and produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org. Join me next week for the first of a three part series previewing the 5th annual Hell’s Half Mile Film and Music Festival.
© Ryan Wilson, 2010