Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The American Movie Review: Mid-Life Crisis of an Assassin

George Clooney has that rare gift of being able to combine movie star power with a knack for challenging and adult movies. Consider his filmography over the last ten to twelve years. He’s worked with Steven Soderbergh on six films, the Coen brothers on three and younger new Hollywood directors such as David O. Russell, Wes Anderson and Jason Reitman. All this and he’s directed two thoughtful and interesting films himself. If his films since Out of Sight haven’t always been great, at the very least they’ve been provocative.

His latest is The American, directed by the Dutch born still photographer and music video director Anton Corbijn. In the past I’ve been critical of music video directors who have attempted to transition to feature films because too often their work is far too kinetic and/or incapable of sustaining a compelling story for two hours. Corbijn directed all of Depeche Mode’s videos from 1986 – 1998 and a couple of U2’s videos. Those videos, like this film, are marked by deliberate composition and attention to surrounding details.

The American is based on the book A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth. It is a crime story with an almost sociopathic character at the center. That Clooney was willing to take on the part of Jack says a lot about his willingness to stretch his professional talent. This is not the prototypical charming Clooney character. You may be able to count on one hand the number of times he flashes even a hint of that gorgeous smile.

Jack is the American of the title, an assassin and weapons maker working in Europe, but he is no Jason Bourne. While we don’t learn much of anything about his background, we can be pretty sure Jack is probably ex-military just making money off what he’s good at. This is not unlike John Cusack’s character in Grosse Point Blank, but without the offbeat humor.

The opening scene contains a shockingly unexpected moment of violence that sets the tone for the entire film thereafter. In one moment we know exactly what kind of man Jack is and what kind of story to expect. Don’t expect a story with easy answers and tight resolutions. Audiences constantly fed a diet of formula plots will be frustrated that the screenplay by Rowan Joffe doesn’t adhere to convention.

Jack is a man struggling to come to grips with himself. It is that internal conflict that shapes the story rather than the external action. He is on the run from “The Swedes,” who seem to track him wherever he goes and try to kill him. He is given work and safe villages to stay in by Pavel (Johan Leysen). His latest job is to build a rifle with highly detailed specifications. The weapon is for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) a female assassin who seems as cool and adept at her work as him. A lesser film might throw these two into a gratuitous romance, but Joffe and Corbijn wisely keep it cold and professional, despite an early meeting in a romantic setting.

It’s curious that Jack later uses that same romantic setting – a secluded patch of land on the bank of a river – to stage a meeting with a woman who does present romantic possibilities. She is Clara (Violante Placido), a local prostitute whose interest in Jack goes from professional to personal. Jack has recently lost a woman he was close to. We get the sense he doesn’t have much time or opportunity for relationships. But he’s a man yearning for some kind of human connection. So when he tells Clara after one of their early trysts that he doesn’t want her to pretend to enjoy it, we wonder if he’s not secretly hoping she does.

Corbijn’s greatest strength is in his confidence to keep the compositions simple. Most of his music videos were shot in black and white. The American is not, but I think it might work better if it were. Commercial considerations prevent many films that would otherwise be better in black and white from being so. Instead, working with cinematography Martin Ruhe, he maintains diminished color palette of mostly earth tones that effectively reflect the cold sparseness of Jack’s life. The score by German musician Herbert Grönemeyer evokes that same emptiness while adding building tension. There is never any of the typical boiler music that punctuates action sequences in movies. It’s all about atmosphere.

Everything about The American screams European artistic sensibilities and without Clooney in the lead, the film would hardly be likely to see the light of day in the United States. In the end I was still confused about who knew what when and the how and the why of it, but recognized that that was hardly the point. Still, it’s not an easy film and I recommend it with reservations. It requires the right frame of mind to settle into it. This is not for the passive viewer.

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