Sunday, November 14, 2010

New Release Review: The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010)

With a recognizable and renowned lead star in George Clooney, and an acclaimed director in Anton Corbijn (Control, 2010), there was a lot of promise for The American and the very early reports promised it to be one of the top Oscar contenders of 2010. Since it's release, however, the praise has cooled off somewhat. With mixed reception, Corbijn's film has divided critics and audiences decisively. The plot's idleness, lack of driven action and obvious conclusion have been the centre of criticism, while many critics have praised Clooney's reserved and subdued performance. Despite these criticisms I went in with high expectations and was suitably impressed.
The American opens with an introduction to Jack (George Clooney), an assassin living with his lover in a remote cabin in Sweden. When the pair are out walking, there is a sniper attempt on his life. The pair find shelter, and Jack kills the sniper, before also killing his lover and an armed backup. Returning to Rome, he is sent by his associate to lay low in Castelvecchio, a small town in the Abruzzo Mountains in Italy. Upon arrival he becomes nervous, tossing the cell phone given to him, and instead decides to stay in Castel del Monte. Assuming the alias of a photographer named Edward, he befriends an elderly local priest, Father Benedetto, and is set up with another job. He meets with a woman named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) who asks him to build her a custom-made sniper rifle for a future assassination. He agrees to the assignment and begins acquiring the parts required to build one suitable to her requests, including the construction of a sound suppressor with parts he picked up from an auto-repair shop of one of Father Benedetto's bastard sons. Jack meets Mathilde in secluded spot by a river to test the weapon, and while impressed, she asks him to make a few modifications. At the same time, he frequently patronizes a prostitute named Clara (the beautiful Violante Placido), and the two build a relationship. Clara, obviously attracted to Jack, invites him out on a date with her when they bump into each other in a coffee shop. One night Jack spies Clara talking to some suspicious men and finds that he is being followed by the same people who had earlier tried to kill him in Sweden. An assassin starts after him through the night streets, but Jack first ambushes him and then pursues him on a motorcycle, eventually killing him. Now fearing for his life, his aroused suspicions are first aimed at Clara (who carries with her an unexplained pistol) and then ultimately on the motives of Mathilde. Realizing that he loves Clara, he decides that this mission will be his last and vows to leave his past behind and start a new life with her.  

The American is intricately constructed, is quietly observant of its characters and is beautifully timed. There is an undercurrent of tension to almost every sequence, as Jack is never really sure who to trust. We at first believe that Jack may be paranoid about his safety as he is methodically careful with everything. But we soon discover that after years of experience, his fears are genuine. The films' minimalism is one of its most appealing traits. It could be described as frustrating, and has been by many, but Corbijn's attention to the mundane details of Jack's methodical routine and his idle activity is firstly interesting but also one of the hypnotic charms of the film. The town is quintessentially Italian. Quaint, but often macabre by nightfall, thudding footsteps on the cobblestone streets and consistent tolling of Church bells frequent throughout. Fueled by some stunning cinematography and diverse, inventive camera work, the town of Castel del Monte becomes a character in itself.

It shares a similarity in plot with In Bruges (2008), and while it lacks the witty humor of that impeccably captured classic, it features a minimalist originality and a beauty rarely realized in the genre. While I doubt it will challenge for any of the Oscars, it may be considered for one the ten picture slots, and also for cinematography. Clooney's performance is reserved and thoughtful. The camera is reluctant to leave him as he controls and dominates the screen with his presence. His famous gravelly tone is wasted somewhat through the lack of dialogue, and the limited emotional requirement of the role doesn't work in his favor. But neither detract from an otherwise solid performance. The two women are simply gorgeous and their electrifying beauty provide the spark to the scenes that is absent from Clooney's character. Clooney shares a great chemistry with both of his counterparts, and its quite a sensual film.

For most of the film it is never made clear whether Jack new he was constructing the means of his own assassination, or whether he was oblivious to the motives of Mathilde, until the shocking moment when we realize. Privileged to the knowledge that he was a target, it is revealed that he tampered with the weapon, causing it to malfunction and backfire on Mathilde. But, removing Clara from the equation, it could easily be read that he had made peace and by handing over the weapon, he was willing Matilde to complete her task. Following this, the conclusion is not surprising or original, but heartbreaking all the same. Clearly regretful of his actions at the behest of his profession, but not optimistic about his spiritual acceptance ("I don't think God is very interested in me father"), he seeks a way out having found a meaningful relationship and a life distinct from his profession. This may be a second chance, as he seemed to have established this life already in Sweden.

While the pace is laborious and slow, my interest was held by the diversity of intriguing shots, Clooney's serious performance, and our suspicions of tension at every corner. Few films this year have better utilized temporality and space than The American. If you are after an action-packed hit-man film than this isn't for you, but its a rewarding experience for a patient viewer. For nothing else, it also features two beautiful women.

My Rating: 4 Stars

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