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The American: Unlike Most Americans, This One is Quiet and Patient

Just like last week’s The Town, Anton Corbijn’s The American deals with a criminal trying to safely complete one final job before turning his life around to one filled with peace and love, and the difficulties inherent in executing the realization of this hope. However, this movie takes a distinctly un-American cinematic approach to the subject, choosing to utilize very little action and instead focusing on our character’s silent self-reflections. While The American is likely to bore the ADD-addled American audiences misled by advertisements into going to see George Clooney shoot people up, it’s a beautifully shot and introspective depiction of this admittedly cliched subject matter, led by Clooney, who continues to be Hollywood’s most interesting movie star.

Jack (Clooney) is relaxing in a log cabin in Sweden with a beautiful young woman (Irina Bjorklund) he seems to have settled down with when he’s attacked by Swedish assassins. After escaping, he’s told by an associate (Johan Leysen) to settle in a small Italian village in the mountains to await further instruction. While there, he receives a job: to build a custom rifle for a woman (Thekla Reuten). He spends his days doing pushups, eating alone, building the gun, and frequenting a prostitute named Clara– until he notices some people are following him. He maintains his focus and his high level of work, and he begins to see Clara outside of the brothel, but the mystery of the unknown spies causes tension.

Corbijn keeps the pace of the film very slow, and the dialogue is minimal to put it mildly. The majority of the film focuses on Clooney’s face as he works, eats, observes, and interprets. It’s the type of film that needs a movie star like Clooney, someone who we immediately sympathize with and who can suggest so much with the most infinitesimal change of expression. Jack can’t afford to get close to people– he’s like a star of a samurai film whose only friend is his sword, or a Sergio Leone film (who’s referenced in the film) whose only friend is his six-shooter. This type of film normally is lengthy and slow-paced, but the looming outside threats and the way in which Jack exposes himself to potential danger keeps us in suspense. “You’ve gone soft,” his associate tells him. Maybe he’s right.

Jack is still a man, and when a man is surrounded by gorgeous European women, you feel pangs of loneliness and desire. He doesn’t treat Clara like a prostitute; he treats her like a lover, and she responds by falling for him. However, as anyone knows from this genre of film, this is absolutely a manifestation of that perceived “softness,” and it may eventually result in his undoing. His occupation’s mantra is to talk to no one and make no friends, yet that’s exactly what he seems to want, if not need. All of this solitude is full of efficiency… but is it truly a life? Clooney gives a strong understated performance, full of nuance and never empty. There’s a moment as the film comes to an end that is heartbreaking, with Clooney doing and saying very little, but we read through his gestures and eyes what is on his mind.

I can see most of my readers not liking this film. The bottom line is this film is old-fashioned and European in nature, and the advertisements for it on TV were exactly the opposite. I vaguely recall lots of shots of him toting a gun in pursuit or being pursued, with some tagline about the hunter becoming the hunted. This is absolute nonsense and in no way does it represent the film. However, this raises an important question: if you have a good film, but because it’s slow-paced and philosophical you know people won’t come, is it more ethical to be truthful in commercials and garner an appreciative audience? Or is it better to put asses in the seats, and while many won’t like it, it gives the American public the opportunity to be exposed to a different type of cinema that they willfully ignore but may enjoy? I’m not sure, but while The American does get a bit too slow for even a patient viewer like myself on occasion, and it dabbles in some heavyhanded symbols and cliches here and there, it is told with grace and performed admirably. It is representative of a style of filmmaking that is nearly extinct in the cineplex– a film that would prefer audiences find it tedious than overstimulate them in an attempt to cover up flaws in storytelling and character development. The American is hardly American in style, but is something Americans should give a fair shot.

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~ by russellhainline on September 24, 2010.

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