The American (2010)

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Trust no one: Clooney on the run

The American is a beautiful and elegant movie that blends elements from many other movies, a movie that is old-fashioned and European. That’s why it’s called The American. George Clooney, not the debonair superstar but submerged into the role, is the only American on view. In this adaptation of Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, Clooney’s character, Jack a k a Edward Clark, is a mysterious professional assassin with elements of Delon’s Samourai in Melville’s Sixties film, or Isaak De Bankoé’s sphinx-like traveler in Jarmusch’s Limits of Control. Mr. Butterfly, people call him, for a tattoo on the middle of his back.

Under orders from a grumpy boss called Pavel (Johan Leysen) whom he talks to only on pay phones, and hiding from the Swedes who have been trying to kill him, Mr. Butterfly picks up a blue Fiat near the Stazione Termini in Rome and winds up sojourning unobtrusively in a little town called Castel del Monte high up near Sulmona L’Aquila in the Abruzzo region (shot there right after the earthquake, though it is not mentioned). He’s given an easy job: he doesn’t even have to shoot the sniper rifle, only put it together to the specifications of a shape-shifting lady (Thekla Reuten) who meets with him in a wood by a river. Pavel has told him to make no friends — he just had to kill one in Sweden — but he chats with the local parish priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) and has hot sex with Clara (Violante Placido), who he meets in a brothel but who falls for him and begins meeting him elsewhere for real dates.

There is a subtext here, because having settled in Italy with a villa on Lake Como and Italian girlfriend Elisabetta Canalis, the actor has embraced and been embraced by Italy and is a “divo” there now. Though he doesn’t give elaborate displays of his linguistic prowess, he clearly understands Italian and throws out the occasional well-placed phrase, especially when going around with the beautiful and warm Clara.

But who is she? Will he have to kill her? Will he have to kill Pavel, or the lady buying the rifle? Or will one of them kill him? Every cup of coffee, every walk across a sun-soaked courtyard, exudes a danger that the nicely understated music sometimes underlines. But mostly things are quiet and we, like Mr. Butterfly, are waiting.

Hot sex, a love affair, assassins chasing an assassin fed up with the trade, constant tension in the quiet streets of a mountainous town: but people are complaining that this is a movie about nothing. That’s the “trouble” with style: it most flourishes when there is least happening. As in The Limits of Control, though its trajectory is different, the protagonist seems to live a life of methodical ritual. He does sit-ups, push-ups, and chin-ups (old-fashioned: the Army is dropping them from the training program for its out-of-shape and injury-prone recruits). He even has an improvised punching bag in his zen-like little provincial hotel room. He spends a lot of time assembling a rifle to order to specifications from the mysterious lady, and when he and she discuss those specifications, its evident they are both consummate pros. It must take several different kinds of bullets and combine the functions of a machine gun and a precision rifle while fitting disassembled in the hidden compartment of an attache case. A “car doctor” called Fabio (Filippo Timi ), whom he realizes is the illegitimate son of Padre Benedetto, gives him spare parts.

Between taking orders for and assembling and delivering the rifle and making love and chatting with Padre Benedetto, the unobtrusive assassin has no time for car chases or shootouts, though there is one or two. But the violence is spaced out, as in a Seventies movie. If you come to The American looking for Bourne action, you will be sorely disappointed. But the slow pace delivers a level of unease, of Antonioni-esque existential dread, that the Bourne films could never attain.

This is the second film by Anton Corbijn whose assured debut was Control, a handsome biopic in art-photo black and white about the mysterious Ian Curtis, doomed lead singer of the post-punk Eighties band Joy Division. This time the former still photographer, whose fresh eye and subtle sense of composition make every frame a pleasure to look at, has shifted to color in this film shot by Control cinematographer Martin Ruhe. The Aquila province, where most of the action takes place, is an important player, its austere, dramatic landscapes framed in long wide-screen shots that are both dramatic and understated. When the climaxes come, they too may seem understated, and quietly tragic, in the manner of Melville’s Le samouraï and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. No mysteries are solved. Rather the fatalistic trajectory of all lone mercenaries is fulfilled and a symphony of style is brought to an appropriate close. This is a grownup thriller whose uncompromising manner withholds the easy pleasures of the usual product but delivers in spades the aesthetic and intellectual gratification of the thoughtful and the well-made.

The American is released in UK cinemas 26th September.

DIRECTOR: ANTON CORBIJN
WRITER: MARTIN BOOTH (NOVEL), ROWAN JOFFE (SCREENPLAY)
CAST: GEORGE CLOONEY, VIOLANTE PLACIDO, PAOLO BONACELLI, FILIPPO TIMI, JOHAN LEYSEN, THEKLA REUTEN
COUNTRY: ITALY
RUNTIME: 103 MIN

Film Rating: ★★★★★

1 Comment
  1. Kevin Matthews says

    My good lady is always joking that I have a man-crush on Clooney as I have long been a champion of the man and his work so it’s great to see the great reviews that this film is getting. I may even see it soon. 🙂

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