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Review: The American

September 13, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The American

George Clooney’s latest star vehicle The American directed by Anton Corbijn, serves as a fitting end to the disappointing 2010 summer movie season. Despite a promising approach, it is hamstrung by overused and trite story elements that blend into a technically competent yet hollow product.

Clooney stars as Jack, a particularly dour assassin forced to go into hiding after his cover is blown during a previous mission. He is able to get in touch with his superior, Pavel (Johan Leysen) who sets him up in a small village in the classically cinematic Abruzzo region of Italy, so he can work on a secondary assignment until the heat dies down. Both men have an understanding that this will be Jack’s last job, as he is troubled by both the nature of his work and the lack of trust implicit in it. In his downtime blending into the scenery, he makes the acquaintance of the local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) and frequents a brothel focusing his attention on the beautiful Clara (Violante Placido).


Jack is assigned to build a specially made weapon for the mysterious Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). The two are not that dissimilar with their somber, business-like demeanor and skilled detachment to their work. The scenes of Clooney’s craftsmanship in assembling the weapon for Mathilde are the strongest in the film and are well served; as it turns out he may not be as safe and secluded as he had hoped. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that Jack might not be the only one still harboring a secret.


If this all sounds familiar, it’s because these are the same hackneyed plot points inserted into countless other entries in the genre. This could be overlooked if there were some degree of inventiveness in how these well-worn beats are handled, but that is not the case here. The story unfolds almost wholly as you would expect and the climax is muted by predictability. The subplot with Father Benedetto is entirely superfluous and distracting at best even in the moment. Jack’s relationships with Clara and Mathilde are too stilted and uneven to earn the place they go to in the final act, and without them the film’s payoff is negligible.


Ultimately, The American’s greatest failure is its deliberately impenetrable star. At the end of the film you know just as much about Jack as you did in the beginning, and care about him even less. Ambiguity and restraint are storytelling devices that too often go unused, but in a project that is so dependent on its lead, the audience needs a reason to commit. By stubbornly withholding anything but the barest of emotion, the story is resigned to simplifying too familiar tropes to get the audience to connect. Clooney does a solid job of managing to keep you curious, if not fully invested; but the lack of worthy supporting characters or a more meaningful story holds back any chance he had of trying to carry this film.


We’ve seen Clooney pull off performances with real heft and moral complexity, but we are asked to endure him in as a rote spy cliché as his Harry Pfarrer character from Burn After Reading. Clooney in that film however, was asked to cleverly send up the cloak-and-dagger persona and the private life of an agent. There was something new and interesting in the (intentionally) over the top performance. In a film that could almost be considered an admirable failure, the avoidance of anything fresh or unexpected with its characters and most glaringly its lead, is debilitating. The difference between the artistic shapelessness of the Coens or the 70s European films that inspired The American, and Corbijn’s disappointment is most apparent here.


While its character work (or lack thereof) cripples the film, the cinematography and Italian setting do everything they can do redeem it. Every shot of Abruzzo’s villas is filled with the rich subtext and quiet intrigue that should have come from its actors.  Corbijn’s background as a former music video director rings true as the scenery is a character unto itself; unfortunately it’s the best drawn out one in the film. With more experience– and a better script– Corbijn should be able to learn from the many mistakes in this film to craft something worthwhile. The stylistic flair with which he (and cinematographer Martin Rhue) shoots the movie and its occasional outbursts of action are deserving of a story of actual substance.

There is nothing wrong with a taut thriller, or even a long-form slow burn, but there is nothing more frustrating than a movie that meanders, not because of style, but because it has nowhere to go. As beautiful as stylish as the visuals are, Corbijn’s overly formulaic story arcs and ponderous tone encumber the film and leave it a character study without a character. What’s left on screen is less an existential view of an assassin than a metaemotional one. The audience following Clooney’s lead is left cold and unable to connect or invest emotionally. Pass on The American and instead, go find Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and watch that… twice.

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