Sunday, September 5, 2010

Review: The American

The American (2010, Anton Corbijn)

Dutch director Anton Corbijn’s sophomore effort after his critical hit Control a few years back will more than likely end up going unnoticed. Released at the very tale end of the summer season, The American stars international superstar George Clooney but arrived with as little fan fair as possible. I would deem this to be rarity with regards to films starring the charismatic and talented American actor, but such was the case a couple days ago when I went with a friend from work to the local multiplex to see a movie for which the poster (which looks pretty swell if I may say so) had only been appearing around town for a couple weeks.

I think about 10 minutes into the film I had understood why I hadn’t seen a single trailer for the movie in front of any film I had seen this summer. Yes, The American is a thriller of sorts, with some chases, some tension, some mystery and some decent kills, but it is, on the whole, a very different beast from what one might expect when going to see a movie of the thriller genre. The story, which follows George Clooney’s character (whose name may be Jack or Edward. No joking, I'm really not sure) around a small but charming Italian village as he a) prepares an arms sale for a female assassin , b) flees from some Swedish heavies who are after him for a past job the viewer is given no information about and c) falls in love with a beautiful prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido), unfolds with a very deliberate pace. The film is in absolutely no rush to get to the end and does not feel the necessity to fill the audience in on enough details for us to know exactly what is going on from frame one. Jack (or Edward), who is employed by a mysterious elderly man for very particular tasks involving arms dealing (and I presume assassinations as well since his character seems to know how to handle himself) is a lonesome man who finds it a difficult to connect to other, yet several people he meets during his adventure seem inexorably attracted to him in many ways, such as the prostitute Clara and quiet but somewhat witty old priest who enjoys his company even though Edward (or Jack) rarely has much to say.

Therein lies one of the strengths of the movie, this notion of a man who, through his job and past experience, finds it both difficult and dangerous to get too close to people and therefore consistently remains at a certain emotional distance from those who want him to open up a little bit. He is shut off, probably because he both can’t and shouldn’t try to be amiable towards those he meets on the job. Without giving away too much, the opening scene exemplifies the ‘shouldn’t’ part. Corbijn utilizes almost everything at his disposal to enforce this prevailing sense of a man on his own. Naturally, the starting point is actor George Clooney, who gives a different performance from the Danny Ocean variety we see often enough. He is very cold, almost mechanical and robotic in his mannerisms and the few times where he tries to be witty, it comes off as a bit awkward and mean spirited, but intentionally so. When things between him and Clara grow more intimate and serious, there is always a lingering reluctance preventing him from wrapping his arms around this love that is standing at his door. It’s a calculated performance, one that pays dividends because of the mystery surrounding the character. The audience would also like him to open up, to reveal himself a little bit more, but that would go against his nature and put himself and those around him in grave danger. The more he sees Clara and the elderly priest however, the more his desire for another life strives for a few gasps of air. Henceforth an internal struggle that rarely, if ever, shows itself in George Clooney’s facial expressions. Whether he will be able to really behave more like a regular sociable person is another discussion, but the fact that he is beginning to realize that he should strive for something more in life than just his job does earn his character a degree of sympathy from the viewer. Yes, he’s kind of boring and cold, but he is coming around on the fact that maybe he could be someone else, and even though it is demonstrated very slowly, without flash or any on the nose scenes with obvious dialogue, it was enough for me to actually start hoping that he did make it out of this adventure alive.

The framing of several scenes as well as the location where the story takes place support the dominant theme of the film. The stunning village where Clooney is staying to prepare for the sale feels lonely and remote. Rarely is there more than a few people in the narrow or the wide streets. There are scenes with Clooney at cafés with him sitting sometimes outside or inside the establishment, and even though there are often other customers, the framing of these scenes often succeeds in putting an emphasis on the character’ s loneliness. It’s an instance in which the ‘framing device’ is effective in a literal sense and not merely as an idea or theme that structures the story. Speaking of framing and visuals, Corbin’s camera is exquisite here, to say the least. Even if one does find the narrative empty and too ponderous for their tastes, at least stay to withhold the beauty of Castel del Monte where the movie was shot. There are a number of breathtaking transition shots that do such a marvellous corner of Europe justice.

Director Corbijn will also find tension in the strangest scenes. Because we know so little about Clooney’s character but have witnessed his lighting quick brutality and effectiveness in disposing people in the opening scene, there was frequently an ominous mood whenever he and other people involved in the same business as him were together. The one that stood out for me is when he takes a stunning blonde woman to a remote location in the woods near Castel Del Monte to demonstrate the quality of his weapons. The stares and body language of the Clooney character is consistently ambiguous. He’s already proven that he can kill anybody depending on what needs to be done, the audience has seen it already. Corbijn takes that knowledge and constructs an odd little scene in which both characters are merely testing out a rifle on the surrounding vegetation, but I was always on high alert for any dark surprises that might be in store. The sense that at no time of day is the Jack/Edward character fully safe leaks superbly into almost every scene. There are a number of downright creepy moments, especially in those dark alleyways at night. Were I to offer a comparison, The American is very much the kind of film a director the likes of Jim Jarmusch would make. Come to think of it, he kind of did already. It was called The Limits of Control and was released during the summer last year (reviewed here). In no way am I attempting to denigrate Anton Corbijn’s work here by calling him copycat. I think any film that finds inspiration from Jarmusch’s work is on solid working ground, but both films, in many respects, are eerily similar.

I don’t know how successful The American will be. It is being released at that difficult early September slot when the movie going public is a bit tired after a hectic summer season and a month or so before the highbrow dramas start rolling out. I don’t think September has ever been a good month to release a film, not to mention that this movie has a decidedly non-mainstream feel to it. From the character interactions (Jack/Edward’s nationality is often the punch line to a lot of stereotypical comments made by supporting characters, but he himself feels so quiet and distanced that the comments just roll off his back most of the time. It’s very dry humour), to the storytelling decisions and especially the pacing, The American is very much its own creation and not a run of the mill thriller, despite George Clooney’s handsome mug gracing the film’s one-sheet poster.

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