The American Review
George Clooney started out his career with some fairly lacklustre TV work, and it was only his stint in E.R. that showcased a quality to his acting, and an undeniable charm and magnetism about him, which was sufficient to warrant a crack at Hollywood. After an opening salvo of extremely diverse movies – an actioner, a romantic comedy, a war satire and even a botched attempt at taking on the heavy mantle of Batman, no less – Clooney proved that he was much more than just a handsome leading man. And over the course of the last decade he has gone on to show audiences – on many occasions – just how capable he was, cementing his position as one of the greatest actors of his generation with powerful, yet often quite reserved, performances in top tier films like Michael Clayton and Syriana. Repeatedly proving that he was capable of taking on a wide range of roles, and bringing his best game to each and every one of them; his latest vehicle, The American, is a quasi-Italian production which has been gathering interest ever since its classically-stylised poster was first promoted. It came out in the UK little over a month ago, and now we get to look at its swiftly turned-around Stateside Blu-ray release.
Whilst relaxing with his lover in a snowbound wilderness cabin in Sweden, Jack is ambushed by assassins, and forced to go on the run, contacting to his handler for help and then getting lost in a small, maze-like town in Italy, hoping that nobody will find him there. Himself a professional hitman and also a master gunsmith, he is soon tasked with crafting a specialised rifle for a fellow assassin, one last job which he hopes will clear the slate and enable him to go peacefully on his way. Reluctantly befriending the local priest, he also meets two intriguing women – the poker-faced client whom he is making the weapon for, and a beautiful prostitute who is both charmed by Jack’s mysteriousness and also sees in him a much-welcomed fresh start. Unable to determine who to trust, and with the Swedish assassins closing in on his location, Jack must use all of his skills and instincts to outwit his opponents and finish the game.
“Of course, you’re American – you live for the present.”
“I try to, father.”
The American is unlike almost any other movie that I have seen this year, a cleverly constructed, artistically filmed, classically tempered character-study, packaged up in the guise of a thriller; with the feel of a European production, or a Seventies crime drama. Shot by a professional photographer-turned Director, Anton Corbjin (Control), the film marks only his second feature, and yet he ports over all of his skills with a conventional camera and crafts an expertly-framed slow-burning mystery; displaying both a eye for capturing breathtaking vistas and interestingly intricate locations, and also delivering a smattering of powerful, realistic action sequences which pepper his well-developed narrative. His nods to Sergio Leone Westerns permeate the production – not least with his shady characterisation, eye for locations, and methodical, simmering pacing (Hell he even plays a clip from Once Upon a Time in the West, and nicknames Jack “Il Americano” just to hammer the point home). He effortlessly maintains tension throughout, dipping you into the psyche of a man who has built his life on healthy ‘paranoia’, always mapping his territory, planning his escape, and looking over his shoulder at every turn. He’s more than just the guy who’s prepared to walk out on absolutely anything and everything 30 seconds after he spots trouble, he’s the man who will leave no trace that he was ever there in the first place.
George Clooney brings the lead character of Jack, who also goes by many other names and nicknames, to life as if he were giving us an alternate reality bookend to the life of Edward Fox’s top assassin in The Day of the Jackal. Like The Jackal, Jack is a consummate professional, an expert marksman, and an amazing craftsman when it comes to modifying weaponry, displaying a great knack for improvisational work, and for insinuating himself into the very heart of a foreign environment – and of the local population therein – in order to complete his mission. But he has also grown weary of his day-job, age catching up with him, the cold feeling of eternal damnation setting in, and the sense that he will spend the rest of his (potentially short) life on earth alone, without friend or ally, eating away at him. His soul craves love, companionship, and perhaps even some kind of redemption – something that his cynical, beleaguered mind would never admit to, even if his actions prove otherwise.
“You cannot deny the existence of hell. You live in it. It is a world without love.”
All he has left are his skills with a weapon, and his proficiency at counter-surveillance, and – with his inherent mistrust for any and everybody he meets – the two women that come into his life pose both varying challenges and potential threats. Clooney, in perhaps one of his most reserved roles ever, breathes life into this cold, almost lifeless enigma, his slight, extremely well-toned frame the polar opposite of what he displayed in Syriana, and yet displaying many of the same traits. This man has seen too much, and you can tell everything you need to about him just from the look in his eyes – ever-alert, consistently cautious, but with a desperate edge to it, as if he knows that his time is running out. Few actors could give us so much with, ostensibly, so little, the picture of his face often painting those famous thousand words. Perhaps it isn’t as powerhouse as Michael Clayton, or as emotional as Solaris, but it is a tremendous effort nonetheless.
And between the foreign stylisation and the authentic rural Italian locales, choosing an entirely unknown European cast to populate the supporting characters may have seemed like a natural progression, but it was nonetheless quite a bold move. One that paid off. Never being overshadowed by Clooney’s restrained, subtlety-portrayed antagonist, who is almost more anti- than hero, we get a series of rich and interesting characters who embolden the proceedings no end, and provide the minimalist drama with some much-welcome vibrancy. From Jack’s shady handler, Pavel (Johan Leysen), to his would-be confidante, the gravel-toned Father Benito (Paolo Bonacelli); from his icy-cool client, who goes by the name of Mathilde (Thelka Reuten), to his classically beautiful companion, Clara (the stunning Viola Placido). He does not trust any of them, but he wants to trust all of them, and we, as audience members, feel exactly the same way. It’s some of the best work I’ve ever seen from a largely unknown cast, and lends itself well to the authenticity of the production, and the realistic edge that they were clearly going for.
“You don’t like the peace?”
“It’s hard to like something you know nothing about.”
Despite all of this praise, The American may well divide viewers – its slow-burning pace and artistic stylisation could provoke a feeling of pretentiousness amongst some, whilst others would conversely applaud its attention to detail and methodical plotting. There’s not enough action for fans of the ‘modern’ thriller, and perhaps not enough intrigue for those expecting a grand, elaborate and complex conspiracy. But there is more than enough here for those who are prepared to take the time, embrace the seemingly foreign style and enjoy this engaging mystery for all that it is. That’s not to say that it is perfect – at times, some elements border on the contrived (how Jack sources the machinery to forge his weapons), and some even border on the clichéd (“one last job”) – but for a sophomore effort by a fresh new Director, this is one step shy of a masterpiece.
For me, the classical elegance, authentic locales, rich characters and perfected action set-pieces are perfectly brought together by a relentless tension; all orbiting around a powerful yet unobtrusive performance by one of the best actors of his generation. This is undeniably a George Clooney vehicle, even if it has none of the traits of one. It is yet another production by him which will both surprise his fans, and also draw others to his daring work. Put very simply, if Michael Clayton was like Clooney’s answer to Cruise’s The Firm; Syriana his alternative to the subsequent action-thriller Green Zone; and Solaris his psychological reflection of Event Horizon, then The American is his take on Léon, one of my favourite films of all time. Accepting that such a massive generalisation is meant to be nothing but respectful praise, you should seriously consider investing your time in this unusual movie. It’s a unique, memorable and bold piece of filmmaking, and it comes highly recommended.
“Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for a reason.”