Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Love: The American

George Clooney, height of the A-List, meets director Anton Corbijn (who we love for his work on Ian Curtis biopic Control) and the result is moody, meditative thriller The American.  Though it boasts the Ocean's series' leading man and dominated at the box office this past weekend, The American owes less to your standard Bourne fare, more to Jim Jarmusch's Limits of Control, or, maybe the clockwork tensions of Blow-Up.  Corbijn has built a blockbuster out of an art house drama; the construction is flawless, but the payoff, for many, will be slightly less than rewarding. 

The American is a beautiful film.  I suspect it's not quite as existential as it wants to believe.  Its still waters don't run quite as deep as they may seem to, but this is alright.  The American is cold, stoic, restless.  Clooney plays a man devoid of his trademark charisma.  He's the strong, silent type pushed further than Syriana or Michael Clayton, and the film acts as mirror to his superficial qualities.  It's a still surface.  Its Italian landscapes are as beautiful as they are familiar.  It is touched by violence that it receives as par for the course, uneventful, unemotional   The opening scene, in which our protagonist's, at first called Jack, sometimes Edward, sometimes Mr. Butterfly (so called because of the geometric insect tattoo at the base of his neck), darkest recesses are revealed to us in a manner that does not ask you to pass judgment, though its morals are questionable at best, its circumstances rather tragic.

We understand immediately that this is a dangerous man in a dangerous career field. That what he does he does out of necessity and with little remorse. He assembles custom weapons for assassins; but we have reason to believe that he himself may be an assassin himself. The film is methodical. It constructs a rigorous routine for Mr. Butterfly; allows him to build into a disciplined warrior, allows you to, without background or extended scenes of social interaction, truly understand the motivation of this character.  Clooney's character does have a weakness.  One little flaw even as he kills without asking questions and customizes bullets in his bedroom: he needs human connection.  He does not want to acknowledge this need.  He suppresses it as much as possible.  He does not trust and is not to be trusted, but he can't quite stay away from the people he will inevitably wind up hurting/disappointing.  We see him gathering materials. Constructing items. Driving back and forth across ridges to place difficult to trace phone calls. Sitting, reading, doing sit ups, tirelessly working at keeping his emotions in check, his back covered, and his mind on task.   In between all of this, he allows the nosy local priest to advise him, and bonds himself to a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido). 

Though its progress is nearly stagnant and its events frequently intuitive (its frankly non-expository), The American is a remarkably tight thriller in which the viewer senses menace without the aid of musical accompaniment or dialogue.  We are suspicious, paranoid, constantly expecting the worst of people.  In other words: we have been transported by the film.  We see from within the consciousness of Jack/Edward/Mr. Butterfly.  We understand what is not spoken.  This, in a wide release thriller, is as much a feat as it is a tremendous risk.  While The American may have very little to offer in terms of narrative to the high stakes world of espionage/assassin cinema, its construction is so highly polished that it shines like a precious gem.  It offers little in the way of explosions or charm, but is entrancing, even haunting in its pacing and photographic delivery.  I was never bored while watching the film, though I often felt I should have been.  Those with little patience may not enjoy The American, but for what it's worth, I found the its drive, its artistry, to be in its silence.  The spaces between events mulled the tensions, the questions, to perfection.  Corbijn reveals little, and that's ok.  By the film's conclusion, the assumptions you leave with are just as important as original intention. 

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