The American
Reviewed in September 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Anton Corbijn. Cast: George Clooney, Johan Leysen, Violante Placido, Paolo Bonacelli, Thekla Reuten, Filippo Timi, Irina Björklund, Samuli Vauramo, Anna Foglietta. Screenplay: Rowan Joffe (based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth).
Twitter Capsule: Antonioni goes Limits of Control with a twinge of Hollywood lacquer. Handsome and very tense, if not a total wow.

Photo © 2010 Focus Features
The American essentially comprises three types of sequences: quotidian interludes where not much happens, extremely tense interludes where not much happens, and compressed surprises that ramify across the other scenes, forwards and backwards, overtly or not. All three types are difficult to describe in a review, especially when the slow, patient, subtly enervating charge of the film stems from sources that would sound deadly in prose, like the woodshoppy precision of do-it-yourself rifle-making, or the tossing of a cellphone out of a car or of a bullet casing into a river, or the irritated refusal of a dinner invitation when you're trying to maintain your anonymity in a foreign city, or a surprising cut from an eye-level walk down an Italian street to an overhead view of the whole town, looking like some medieval builder's prescient vision of an electronic motherboard. The movie has two broad elements working against it. One of them is the creeping sense that Hollywood's cabal of debonair do-gooders (Clooney, Damon, Pitt) can take somewhat high-handed approaches to the popular genres that they, like many of us, nonetheless tend to gravitate toward, as though they sometimes get hung up on concepts that are unlikely to work as movies, or they can't always distinguish, or else choose not to, between the urges to excite us and to be rather medicinal and contrarian in the ways they enact that calling. For better and for worse, a lot of Clooney vehicles seem premised as much on their refusal of convention or expectation as they are on their embrace of a positive task, although Up in the Air and the Leatherheads ads certainly raised my doubts about whether Clooney, like Obama, ought ever to pretend to just be one of the guys, speaking as part of the zeitgeist when, if anything, he's a born pedagogue, self-aware as a skeptic. Ironically, though, The American's other lurking weakness feels very pop, though it rears its head just as often in the arthouse. I speak here of an over-reliance on rather hackneyed narrative maxims, like the trained killer on a last assignment, or the astonishingly gorgeous prostitute who promises to "save" her mystery client on some spiritual level, provided that he saves her, too, from a life that the movie treats rather brusquely as a given when it isn't directly romanticizing it.

"Fresh," then, isn't always the first word that springs to mind with regard to The American, yet it's rich in detail and atmosphere, deceptively subtle in implication, and ultimately rather moving in the way it synthesizes a long-postponed action climax with a poignant coaxing outward of yearning and regret. One mustn't expect Bourne velocity or style, though to be fair, the European sharpshooter-chic of Doug Liman's Bourne Identity at least tangentially intersects with this movie's cosmos of gorgeous, taciturn assassins. In that way and in several other terms, The American can be very entertaining, even engrossing. I don't know whether Clooney got director Anton Corbijn's number first or Corbijn got Clooney's, but they smartly work the overlap between Clooney's expanding cadre of professionally motivated, low-voiced melancholics and Control's somewhat clinical interest in success as a curse, and in chilly breezes that take their toll on the outsider's romantic self-conceptions. Clooney plays the starring role effectively, albeit through his usual reliance on close-up effects that are, by now, largely familiar. Here he resuscitates and debatably improves on his Solaris track of slowly, slowly peeling away at an introverted character's equanimity, or else his self-protective mirage of equanimity. Like Solaris's Chris Kelvin, The American's Jack doesn't always sleep well, and he sometimes wakes up looking like hamburger.

At least he balms his spiritual troubles in effortless style and morsels of succor. At times you want to laugh a little at The American for so obviously emulating films like Antonioni's The Passenger but not quite being willing to sacrifice the louche enticements of Italy for the rougher terrain of Third World deserts, airport lines, and crappy hotels. And yet, through a combination of casting and performance, Corbijn and Clooney show us a man who knows his pleasures, however rationed, to be an Achilles heel. To literalize an analogy that The American already might have finessed a bit more subtly, Jack is like an ascetic who, after many years, still can't bring himself to give up everything he's supposed to. He keeps hoping that giving up on having everything will be an acceptable substitution for what is nonetheless a clear professional edict against having anything. So he holds back from fully indulging, the way James Bond so regularly does, yet he seems unable or unwilling to understand that even the briefest or most casual contacts might compromise him at the deepest levels. Or is that line of thinking just a guilty projection? The movie keeps us guessing whether the malign forces that come calling on Clooney's Jack have anything to do with his furtive, temporary liaisons, his seeking of comfort, his need to talk just a little bit to someone, his helpless urge to turn a quick, no-questions meeting into a picnic, however rushed. Blaming his occasional scrapes with death on his refusal to accept total isolation could be an indulgence of its own, though a roundly unpleasurable one: it's one way of not reckoning with the fact that you're not in danger because you take a friend or a lover, but because you kill people professionally, or assist others in doing so. Surely Jack grasps the stakes of this, the core problem as well as his own ways of dealing with it. Is it out of overweening belief in himself, or is it out of a sober, unspoken concession that lives like his aren't meant to last, that he just can't bring himself to hole up completely, as his faceless supervisors keep instructing? Is it only because he's surrounded by Roman Catholicism, personified a little broadly by Paolo Bonacelli's inquisitive priest, that Jack keeps pondering his temptations, and the price he may have to pay for them? Is giving in to temptation a way of preoccupying himself with something else, something to feel bad about but not that bad about, by contrast to more implacable sins?

The American is full of shots that may feel arbitrarily placed, or superfluous to everything but Corbijn's sleek photographic eye, yet for me, the vast majority of them helped to sustain an inward-turning character journey that is mercifully preserved from banal voice-over. As it oscillates between a tight visual focus on Clooney and wider vistas of the Italian sidewalks and landscapes, I felt The American alternating between two views of Jack, one of a man who is always haunted and one of a man who feels especially haunted, especially fatalistic, especially tempting of his own fate because he's in this maze of narrow byways, sharp turns, and godly surveillance, and at a particular juncture in his story. Jack's story may appear archetypal, and The American, as advertised, can be flexed to work as a national allegory, though one wouldn't want to belabor this. Still, there is plenty of character specificity in Jack, even when the performance isn't making a point of conspicuous detail. Maybe Clooney lacks a certain range as an actor, but he has a beautiful, upsetting scene in an almost empty restaurant toward the end of The American where he unweaves the loom of Jack's cool almost completely, as though he was studying Tilda Swinton very carefully in their Michael Clayton scenes, and knows what a shock it can be to watch a person totally unravel at the very moment they need to have their wits most about them. If you're harboring doubts about Clooney's performance, even after his subtler, equally crucial run of psychological coloration during a midfilm round of target practice, deep in the woods with a client he barely knows, the payoffs in his terse approach are considerable once we've reached the final 15 minutes.

Nonetheless, and in a good way, "Jack" feels dissolved as a character, like a sugarcube in coffee, as the movie subordinates its study of character to an overall canvas of encroaching unrest, nearly all of it evoked through a strong command of form. Clooney can't help but lend Jack a rugged solidity on screen, but the surrounding movie conveys him potently as a product of environment, a loosely aggregated series of swift tasks and long holding-patterns, impulses and introspection, targets hit, targets contemplated, and occasionally targets missed. Almost every formal element of the movie—the sound mix, the score, the depth of field, the editing, the richness of color, the unbelievable tailoring of the clothes—works back and forth within a gradient of ease and constriction. Low-level sonic ambience gives way to heightened, auditory abstraction and vice versa, just as the mundane visual perspective of the casual onlooker switches back and forth with the excruciating hyper-alertness of paranoid prey, just as the comfort of a T-shirt or of actual undress alternates with clothes so elegantly but tightly contoured that they seem to harness rather than adorn the wearer, the way the chamber of a gunbarrel holds a bullet, without a millimeter to spare. To receive these sensory messages and what they might mean, you have to be willing to receive The American in the way it's been built, not in the way it's been marketed, and to understand the quietly gripping opening not as a kickoff to unstinting excitement—nor, thank God, as one of those fashionable preambles that will get revisited over and over as the movie continues—but as a kind of doorway into guilt and dread, most often confined to lower frequencies. In fact, the power of that prologue lies in the film's refusal to gesture back to it, much less to explain it. Jack makes a quick decision in that first scene that not only surprises the audience but seems to contradict something he himself has urged mere seconds before he makes this sudden choice. Has Jack done this before? Did he think he was already out of this racket, only to find abruptly that he was back in, and if so, whose fault does he think that is? Is his paranoia in Italy a reflection of anything except his guilt about Sweden, or are we badly misconstruing the character and his circumstances if we fail to grasp the level of risk that Jack constantly inhabits, even as he walks from his car to his room?

Not every viewer will be pondering these questions during The American, because unlike so many other recent thrillers, it doesn't assign what you are meant to be thinking about when, and it's constructed so tightly that the audience is doing more than enough just to stay inside the unfolding moments and predict what is to come of them—the firm but soft-spoken rebuke to a cleric, the long bout of sex that starts softly and ends a little roughly, the two-way trust exercise of target practice with a stranger, the agitating riddle of the contents of a purse. The American doesn't break any new ground, and if it seems bravely tight-lipped and elliptical, that's as much a comment on the vulgar lack of mystique that now typifies its genre as a credit to the movie itself. I appreciate the movie for being different, but anomalies, especially self-conscious ones, are't always guarantees of quality. Early audience response has been rather withering. If I'm bucking a trend by praising the film, it's not because I mean to be contrarian or because I'm automatically lionizing that same impulse in the film. What I admire is The American's ability to mine suspense from moments both critical and not, its managing to balance coldness and compassion in the way it regards its protagonist, and its Ghost Writerish self-confidence that image and sound can dictate one's experience of a thriller in a very muscular way, without just dialing them upward into unrelenting, Shutter Island levels of bombast.

In his final scene, even if it involves a gesture that many will perceive as both crude and highfalutin (and they probably have a point), Corbijn crystallizes the fact that his movie has been possessed the whole time by darkness but also, less obviously, by tenderness. Just as the tension thickens and mounts, the movie's stakes are expressed with an unexpected lightness, through a figure that asks to be considered "poetic," and I felt happy to oblige. Again, on paper, this ending reads like a problem, and for several people in my audience, it played that way, too. But for better or worse, as a snapshot of the very principle of conversion, though possibly not the kind we've been expecting, I thought the finale captured the movie's enduring knack for passing between registers, spiking commotion with quiet, romance with cynicism, the sense of being sealed up in something and the floating dream of going somewhere else, of becoming something else. A superficial figure, maybe, for a simplistic idea, but The American had implicated me more than sufficiently into its ways of thinking and feeling. I believed it. Grade: B

VOR: (3)   (What is this?)
Within the context of how fully The American retreats from Hollywood genres in its means of generating suspense, it clearly embodies a risky and creative venture, especially since it comes across not as a negative exercise in refusing a popular template but as a confident, proficient practitioner of slow-burn structures and aesthetic devices that really serve the material. The film's reliance on color, timing, sound, and texture to communicate story and psychology are not far off the high-water mark in lush abstraction that characterized Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control last year, and that film was deemed too self-involved even for the arthouse, much less for the mall. So The American, within its market slot and given its marquee star, certainly represents a refreshing and honorable surprise. Still, one shouldn't pretend Corbijn isn't swiping a lot of his ideas from filmmakers he admires, and both the coffee-table glossiness and the saved-by-a-prostitute narrative trajectory can sometimes feel a bit hoary. With apologies for the homonym.

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