Monday, September 6, 2010

The American (2010)

The first irony of The American is that it is, in so many ways, a European film. It stars George Clooney as a hit man living in Italy who is gearing up for one last job before he quits--but while this set-up is straight out of Hollywood's storage of dependable cliches, the execution of it is something else entirely. Directed by Anton Corbijn, it is a European art film to its bones. It reminds me of Jean-Pierre Melville's French variations on American crime flicks in the fifties and sixties. This is an action movie, disassembled and stripped down to its component parts, the existential bones of a hackneyed genre piece.

The film trades in silence (Clooney speaks fewer lines in this than in any starring role he's ever had). Exposition is infrequent and slight. We're left to piece things together. Clooney does something in the first five minutes of the film that marks him as decidedly unheroic (most hit man movies are cowardly in this way: they give their protagonists a moral code that we can respect and even admire), and the film never compensates for this by making him befriend a child or rescue a puppy from drowning. He is a man who kills people for a living, and the film accepts the amoral hole that must exist in him for this to be true.

We observe him as he goes about the business of custom building a gun for another assassin (Thekla Reuten). If you want to know how to assemble a sniper rifle or make an explosive-tip bullet, this is the film for you. The key here is process. He's a man at work. There is action in the film (by my count Clooney kills six people), yet the action punctuates the movements of the story rather than being the substance of it (there are killings at the outset, middle, and end). Mostly, we are here to watch this man as he goes about his work and tries (and fails) to live with nothing else. He meets a woman (the beautiful and charismatic Violante Placido) and makes tentative steps toward emotional intimacy. He develops a relationship with an elderly priest and makes tentative steps toward ethical clarity. None of this is cute or coy. All of it unfolds under gathering portents of doom.

This brings us to the second irony of the film: it's a drama with the trappings of an action movie. The advertisements are trying to fool you. This is not an ass-kicking thriller. It's a slow builder, the story of a man's moral implosion. In many ways, it reminds me of Allen Baron's terrific hit-man noir Blast of Silence. Like Baron's film, The American is less about killing than trying to live without valuing life.

At the center of the film, is George Clooney. I haven't used his character's name a) because there's some ambiguity about what exactly it is, and b) I realized about halfway through the film that I was merely thinking of him as George Clooney. Since 1998 when he made Out of Sight and began his movie career in earnest, he's become one of our indispensable stars. Fluff like The Perfect Storm and the Ocean's films finance the villa in Italy and dinner with supermodels, but he's pursued a course that is at once the model of the classic Hollywood star and a subversion of it. Out of Sight, Three Kings, Syriana, Solaris, O Brother Where Art Thou, Michael Clayton, Burn After Reading, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up In the Air--that's not simply a list of good films, it's a run of smart, quirky films that use his star quality in interesting ways. He's directed three films (a weird fictional biopic, a political drama about free speech, and a screwball comedy about football) with a fourth on the way. He's taken on odd side projects (experimental films with Soderbergh like The Good German and Fail Safe).

You don't have to like all his stuff--I didn't care for Intolerable Cruelty or The Men Who Stare at Goats--to observe that he's used his position in Hollywood to great effect. A film like The American reminds me of the kind of late career projects that Bogart and Jimmy Stewart took in the fifties. You never forget that you're watching Bogart or Jimmy Stewart, but there again is the mystery of the movie star, and indeed of the movies themselves. They are a combination of the real and the unreal. Watching a favorite star playing a character is both familiar and new, like catching up to an old friend after they've remarried and switched jobs.

Clooney is always the man in the know, the smart guy who can talk his way out of anything. But from the beginning, he's tweaked that character with an undertow of doubt. In The American--a fine contribution to his body of work--he's stripped of words, left to drown in that undertow.

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