'American' Gradually Comes Into Its Own
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Movies detailing the existential crises of assassins/hit men/whatever-you-want-to-call-them seem to have become so common in the past 40 years or so that they could be said to constitute an entire genre, rather than just a subgenre of the thriller. Or would it be a subgenre of the art film? Jean-Pierre Melville's great 1967 "Le Samourai," a pioneering work in this respect, is for many a kind of ultimate hybrid of the art film and the thriller, melding a gritty world of backstabbing low-life crooks with long, possibly profound silences and drawn-out moments of the sort of suspense some could easily confuse with exquisite ennui. Indeed, some critical heretics out there complain that even within the parameters of the immortal Melville's body of work, "Le Samourai" is a little too much art and too little thriller.
That's also a charge that will no doubt be leveled at Anton Corbijn's second feature as a director, "The American," starring George Clooney in the title role. The story line has all, not to say too many, of the features that distinguish the tragic-assassin picture. It begins with an ambush that forces Clooney's enigmatic character — variously known as "Jack," "Edward," and most fraught-with-symbolic-portent "Mr. Butterfly" — to take an awful action against a largely innocent bystander. Feeling the burn, he flees from the blinding snow-white climes of Sweden to sunnier Italy, where his contact, or control, or what have you (the immediately untrustworthy Johan Leysen), sends him to a remote mountain town until this thing, whatever it is, blows over. And of course, he instructs Jack not to "make any friends."
But Jack, all alone and quietly traumatized, can't help himself, and so, even while beginning a new job — and though he doesn't say so, at least not right off the bat, audiences familiar with this sort of material already know he intends this "job" to be his "last" — assembling a custom weapon for a hit where he won't be the triggerman, Jack finds himself getting attached to both a local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and a local prostitute (Violante Placido). (Holy sort-of moral dichotomy, Batman!) Because this is a movie, and because it is a movie starring George Clooney, of course the prostitute is also ravishingly beautiful and of course she falls for her "Mr. Butterfly" in a way that actual prostitutes almost never fall for their own clients. (Not that I know of this from experience, mind you. Film critics do tend to have a tough time of it socially, but, hey ...) And so the hit man starts to see a way out of his current, rotting, always-on-the-run life with this lady. Is he deluding himself? As he meticulously assembles a hybrid rifle/pistol for an almost impossibly chic female assassin (Thekla Reuten), the American can barely keep his sense of panic submerged. As William S. Burroughs once quipped, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you, and, as it happens, this hitman is being pursued by many real enemies, and it rattles him more than it ever did before, leading his handler to present him with the hoariest of hit-man-movie bromides: "You've lost your edge, Jack."
So far, so kind-of familiar, and don't think the filmmakers don't know it; Clooney, who's one of the film's producers, has cited this picture as an homage to works he hasn't, to the best of my knowledge, explicitly named, but one would have to conclude they include the likes of "Le Samourai," not to mention Wenders' "The American Friend," Antonioni's "The Passenger," and so on. While audiences expecting a straight-ahead action-packed thriller are going to find this a perhaps bitterly disappointing experience, viewers more familiar with the previous films that this one takes off from may become exasperated waiting for the picture to rise above the level of an expertly made pastiche. It's clear from the beginning that, despite the fact that each and every frame comprises an immaculate image, Corbijn doesn't feel the same personal connection to this material that he did with his debut, "Control," the story of the doomed rock singer Ian Curtis.
The good news, though, is that eventually "The American" does get to where it wants to be, and becomes a rather improbably but genuinely moving story. Clooney's decision to turn off his natural charm for this role actually pays big dividends by the story's end, and his acting in the film's final quarter is not just some of the best he's ever done, but also some of the best you'll see in any movie this year. Corbijn's shooting is meticulously detailed, particularly when cinematographer Martin Ruhe trains the camera on Clooney: Every pore on his face seems amplified. It's a hyperrealist portrait, in a way a cinematic equivalent to a prose passage in early Robbe-Grillet, and it suggests levels to this fascinating film that may well reveal themselves on re-viewings.
Glenn Kenny is a writer living in Brooklyn. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com.