Monday, December 27, 2010

New on DVD: "The American," a very European thriller.

Clooney finds his focus.
The American, the acclaimed George Clooney thriller about a hit man trying to escape his past, is on DVD and Blu-Ray this week (tomorrow, to be exact). Here's what I wrote upon seeing the flick back in September:

At some point about midway through The American, the protagonist, an assassin and gun manufacturer who might be named Jack and might be named Edward (George Clooney), is sitting in a semi-deserted Italian bar while Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, starring Henry Fonda, plays on a giant plasma screen. When Jack/Edward gets up to pay for his drink, the bartender nods to the screen and says, with justifiable pride, that the director of this masterpiece of Western cinema was “Italiano.”

It’s a moment that is perhaps not helpful to the understanding of the film, but infinitely helpful to the understanding of the influences behind it. For all its spy thriller posturing and cold steel craftsmanship, The American is at heart a character-driven spaghetti western centered around a callous man struggling against his own humanity.

When we first meet Jack/Edward, he has just killed several people, and we are led to believe it was in an attempt to preserve his own life. Someone is hunting him, but we don’t know why. A business associate sends him from Rome to a hideout in a remote Italian village, where he is hired by another assassin (Thekla Reuten) to build a compact rifle.

While slowly putting together his project, he meets an Italian prostitute (Violante Placido) who somehow begins to warm his metalworker’s heart.

As his violent world begins to close around him, Jack/Edward looks for a way out, and tension builds as everything becomes uncertain, and everyone becomes a potential threat.

When I say that this is a “European” film, I mean many things. The American is a conventional thriller in many ways. It’s about a guy on the run who’s good at staying alive. It’s got guns, women and plenty of psychological tautness. And it’s got a big Hollywood star topping the bill. But underneath the superficial layers of American action bravura is something much more. Director Anton Corbijn, most famous for his music videos, pushes this film into art house territory with unconventional camera work, lots of silence and moments in which nothing seems to be happening but everything is revealed about the character we’re following.

As far as I can tell, the people who aren’t into the flick are the people who complain that it’s boring, that what was billed as a spy thriller turns out to be much more of a meditation on loneliness. In a way, they’re right. It’s a slow film, and Corbijn’s hypnotic studies of the jigsaw Italian cityscapes and panoramic countryside only serve to give it more pause. If you don’t like that, there’s nothing I can say to convince you otherwise, and I will personally admit to having been tempted to glance at my watch once or twice. But when you encounter such a film, a film that's more interested in showing than telling, more interested in implying than informing, you have to understand what was intended in the first place. Corbijn and screenwriter Rowan Joffe didn’t set out on this journey to make us cheer George Clooney through another heroic performance. They set out to give a portrait of a man hovering between a real human experience and survival as the cold man he is. And in that, they succeed.

And part of the reason they succeed is Clooney himself. I’ve never understood Clooney haters. Yes, he’s a big Hollywood star with his fair share of sellout moments (Yes, I’m talking about Batman and Robin.), but he’s also a fine actor, as he’s more than proven by now. His portrait of Jack/Edward isn’t flashy or emotional or even exciting, but it is captivating. There’s a fine art to sustaining interest in a man who is boring save for the fact that he could kill you in half a second if he wanted to, but Clooney pulls it off. There’s a focus to his performance that’s uncommon in modern American acting, and even if you don’t like the film, the craftsmanship behind the role is worth appreciating.

This is not a film for the action movie crowd, or the spy genre crowd. This is a film about how a man becomes a killer, and how a killer battles his own guilt for a chance at redemption. It’s not glittery, it’s not overwrought, and it’s not Hollywood. It is an immensely patient, well-crafted piece of work, and though it drags in places, seeing something like this on our side of the pond is rare enough to make it worth it.

Matt’s Call: I was not riveted by this film, or blown away, or overwhelmed, but I was impressed. If you want to see it and enjoy it, abandon all pre-conceptions you have about what a Hollywood star should do in a film about a killer, and you’ll be the better for it.

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