Friday, September 3, 2010

Shoot Kill Drink Coffee - The American

As does Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love, the mysterious Jack/Edward (George Clooney) in The American goes to a small hilltop town in Italy hoping to change his life. He eats and drinks wine; he doesn’t pray, but he is befriended by the town priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who serves him lamb stew; and he visits a local prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido) and gradually falls in love with her. Unlike Ms. Gilbert, however, Jack is not disappointed with his marriage. Jack is beginning to regret the moral cost of his job as a gunsmith making lightweight, concealable rifles for professional assassins, and he wants to stop his involvement in the killing, both indirectly by making guns and directly by self-defense – which sometimes means killing a “friend” to hide his identity.

With its picturesque Italian setting and its very European pacing and tone, Anton Corbijn’s The American echoes at least two other films with similar European tone: The Day of the Jackal (1973) and Behold a Pale Horse (1964), both directed by Fred Zinneman. Like the nameless assassin for hire (Edward Fox) in Jackal, Jack is a sophisticated professional who kills swiftly. Also like the Jackal, he expertly modifies a rifle to make it concealable, he tests it in the Italian countryside, and he provides explosive bullets. Like Manuel Artiguez (Gregory Peck) in Behold a Pale Horse, he is an outlaw suffering a midlife crisis and hiding in a small European town. Jack is tired of the killing and he wants this job to be his last, modifying a rifle for a sexy, leggy female assassin (Thekla Reuten). Similar to The American as well, both these films have a tone that make you feel the European atmosphere.

At the center of the story, Jack kills, seemingly, without remorse to protect his identity. He hides in a peaceful Italian town, a grim, soulless loner who sits in vacant cafes or austere rooms that suggest the emptiness in his life. Throughout, George Clooney sets his jaw, glowers darkly, and acts the part, but as the ruthless killer, he is never convincing. He merely seems to be going through the motions, setting his jaw and glowering darkly. But Clooney’s discomfort with the character of Jack, the bad guy, could easily stem from a screenplay that does little to develop Jack’s backstory. We know what Jack does; we know he wants to change his life; and we know he is falling in love with Clara, but other than that we know nothing about him. Jack seems devoid of a soul until Clara's earnest love for him wakes up a glimmer of it.

As the inventive mechanic, however, Clooney is more convincing. He handles the sniper rifle, as well as the random pieces he is using to modify it, with the kind of convincing physicality that reminds me of Burt Lancaster. Watch Lancaster manipulate firearms in The Unforgiven or locomotive parts in The Train, and I think you’ll agree that Clooney handles his props with comparably convincing self-confidence.

Contrary to its preview that makes it look like an action-packed spy thriller, The American is a very quiet film. It starts with silent shots of a cabin on the shore of a snow-covered lake in Sweden. Many of the shots showing Jack driving across the Italian countryside are virtually silent but always dazzling. The American features cinematography so sharp that shots of hilltop villages and broad valleys seem to leap off the screen 3-D fashion – but no 3-D achieves this clarity and detail. Meanwhile, there is relatively little action for a film advertised as a thriller, though this is not a shortcoming, in my opinion. I enjoyed the film’s foreign ambiance. Jack sits in cafes and drinks coffee. Jack buys cheese in an open market. Throughout, Corbijn brings a sharpness to the story’s foreign atmosphere that makes you want to hang out in cafes.

As a thriller about assassins, The American covers familiar ground: the bad guy who wants out and his fruitless expectation that he can enjoy a peaceful life with a grateful prostitute. Deflating some nice tension built when Jack hands over the sniper rifle to the assassin in a drab gas station café filled with empty tables rigidly squared off in a sterile room, the climactic “shootout” is staged during a religious parade that has potential as a dramatic set piece but is presented without any sort of suspenseful build up.

But the scenes involving Violante Placido as Clara, the Italian prostitute who falls in love with Jack and hopes to run away with him to America, are the film’s best scenes. The episodes in Clara’s room, in a restaurant where she meets Jack for dinner, and on a riverbank where she and Jack go for a picnic, are filled with the warmth of Placido’s charm and physical beauty. The film seems to get its life when Clara makes her appearance and strips off her clothes for her client. Her response to Jack’s determination to give Clara sexual pleasure is a convincing, emotional moment in an otherwise emotionless film. When Clara throws off her clothes to take a dip in the river, the natural setting, the lighting, and the confident way Placido presents her nakedness achieve a sensuality that I feel has been missing from films for a long time, and I found it quite refreshing to view a thriller rated R for sexuality rather than for its violence.

Film over, I expect George Clooney fans and fans of more action-packed Bourne-type thrillers were disappointed. I was not completely disappointed. I enjoyed the film’s European atmosphere, and I felt it was worthwhile seeing the film solely for its amazing cinematography and for the exciting presence of Violante Placido. I left the theater hoping to see Placido in future films and feeling like going to Starbucks to drink espresso from a tiny cup.


Daniel said...

Well we have just about the exact same thing to say about this movie (lack of character, familiar movie trappings), though I was just a touch more disappointed than you.

I like what you say about the scenes starring Placido - they're the only ones that felt alive to me in a warm way.

Richard Bellamy said...

Daniel, thanks for the comment.

You got on this one right away! And you worried about posting frequency in your recent comments on writing a blog! Funny how it works. I had no idea what I would say about this movie as I came out of the theater - then thoughts about its strengths and weaknesses kept piling up and I had to write them down.

How did she get to the river!?

Daniel said...

I'm glad you did write them down (I especially like your last line), because this one is ripe for debate. We're not too far off from each other but I know some people have felt much stronger either way.

Sad about some of those logic questions (e.g., the river) in a movie like this. You'd hope they wouldn't be so careless, or that other things going on would at least distract from us noticing. Or maybe just me noticing!

Jason Bellamy said...

When Clara throws off her clothes to take a dip in the river, the natural setting, the lighting, and the confident way Placido presents her nakedness achieve a sensuality that I feel has been missing from films for a long time, and I found it quite refreshing to view a thriller rated R for sexuality rather than for its violence.

Well said! We had very similar feelings about this film and somehow managed to both reference Zinnemann -- amazing! Thankfully I'd only seen half of one trailer, so I had no expectations. This is one of the better films of this year. Though that says more about the year than the film.

As for your question in the comments ...

In the final scene, you can see her motorcycle resting against the tree.

Jason Bellamy said...

By the way, you might have seen this already, in one review or another, but just in case ... some trivia on the beautiful Placido ...

Richard Bellamy said...

Jason - Thanks for the compliment, and I will check out your review. Despite the film's failings, I too think this is one of the summer's best and I enjoyed it. It has a vivid sense of place that I enjoyed. Also, thanks for the link to the trivia! Very surprising about Placido.