The American (2010)

The waiting.  The constant driving.  The deceptions.  The hiding in plain sight.  The relentless paranoia.  The loneliness.  The misery.  The guilt.

Being an assassin isn’t easy.  The sacrifices you make for your own peace of mind are tremendous.  No matter how great the pay, no matter any illicit, forbidden thrills being a human exterminator can bring at times, you can never relax and be yourself.  You’re married to the job for life. 

That’s the lesson George Clooney learns in The American, a sly, quietly compelling drama that is far more interested in the assassin’s daily routine than always presenting a coherent plot.  (Intense concentration is highly recommended.)

Case in point:  the opening sequence.  Our bearded hero is having a good time with a hot European babe.  They’re staying in a cozy cabin in a Swedish forest in the dead of winter.  While out for a walk in the snow one morning, they get shot at.  Clooney’s experience as a marksman for hire quickly ends the tension. 

Then something surprising happens.  He kills his woman!  Whoa, what’s going on here?  Isn’t he supposed to be the good guy?  After knocking off another sniper, Clooney high-tails it out of there and heads to Italy. 

A jolting way to open a movie but some important questions go unanswered.  Besides his woman, what was Clooney doing in Sweden in the first place?  Why were they targetted for assassination?  Who hired their attackers?  And how did they find the unsuspecting lovers in such a remote area? 

We’ll never know.  What matters more to director Anton Corbijn (the famed Dutch rock photographer) is how Clooney exists after that.  His job is all he has.  He’s a modern nomad, never staying in one place for very long for very obvious reasons.  His facial expressions are often intense and grim.  He views the world as one giant minefield where one false move, one little mistake could blow him apart for good.

In Italy, a now clean shaven Clooney meets with his boss, Pavel (Belgium actor Johan Leysen who I initially thought was Terence Stamp), in a local cafe.  Pavel gives the tortured assassin keys to another vehicle and instructs him to lay low in a specific area of the country for a while.  But when Clooney arrives at his destination, he gets out of his new car, makes eye contact with three local residents who meet his gaze head on, and instantly realizes that he could find a better place to reside temporarily.  Pavel might think he’s losing his edge but Clooney’s instincts are still razor sharp.

If this movie is as realistic as it appears, then being an assassin is truly a dull, empty profession.  You’re constantly on the road with almost no traffic in sight.  (Some of the most beautiful shots in the movie simply involve Clooney’s solitary car in motion.  The symbolism is powerful, a lonely traveller unable to truly enjoy the breathtaking surroundings because of his constant restlessness.)  You don’t have any real friends or family.  Much of your time is spent working tirelessly on your own.  You eat and drink alone.  You wait a lot.  The only exciting parts of the gig are killing people and getting shot at (not to mention non-committal sex with hookers).  It’s just no way to live.

At some point, we start to understand why Clooney murdered his girlfriend in Sweden.  And when he finds himself falling for a beautiful prostitute (the very sexy Irina Bjorklund), his natural paranoia kicks into overdrive, especially when he discovers a pistol in her purse. 

Meanwhile, more Swedish assassins are hunting for him and he has a new assignment, which he insists will be his last.  He meets another beautiful woman (Thekla Reuten) in a public area.  She wants a semi-automatic weapon so compact it’ll fit in her purse.  Clooney can’t promise that but he can offer something that’ll fit in a suitcase.  She’s cool with that.  Reuten also wants a silencer.  Clooney can’t promise that, either, but he can create a makeshift device that will greatly reduce the noise when she pulls the trigger.  A deal is made.  Payments will be made in installments.

What follows are a number of cool scenes where Clooney goes to work securing the necessary parts to put together this weapon.  It’s a pretty mundane job, especially the assembly, and it requires a strong sense of ingenuity and patience.  Clooney never once gives the impression that he derives any joy from this.  It’s pretty routine for him, the utter definition of tediousness.  It’s neat to watch.

Are American movies overly chatty?  After screening The American, I’m beginning to think so.  This is the most quietly enthralling drama I’ve seen since Cast Away.  There are lots of scenes where the actions and looks of the characters, not to mention the gorgeous outdoor visuals, speak much louder than any dialogue exchange ever could, with some notable exceptions. 

Clooney’s mysterious assassin could’ve easily been played by Clint Eastwood.  They share the same philosophy about speaking:  only do so when absolutely necessary. 

He does a lovely job capturing the essence of this haunted man through his body language and dark facial expressions, as well as through his low, haggard voice.  Despite his mysterious nature and the grimness of his job, we sense the goodness in him.  He’s stuck in a lifestyle that’s been slowly sucking the life out of him.  Good people have had to die and that’s eating away at his conscience.  There’s a nice little scene where half of his face is covered in shadow with the other side clearly visible, an effective visual reminder of the internal struggle he’s been facing for a while.  In another, he has a nightmare about Sweden.  He may be an assassin but he can’t shut off his emotions.

I liked the supporting performances, too.  Reuten, Bjorkland and Leysen, all unfamiliar to North American audiences, make strong impressions here.  Paolo Bonacelli, who plays the kindly and remarkably observant Father Benedetto, has the best dialogue to work with and is the most memorable character in the movie.  His scenes with Clooney are touching and revealing.  The assassin and the priest have more in common than you would think.

By the time we reach the third act, we have a sense of how things are going to go but the film manages to surprise us just enough to keep us emotionally involved in the outcome.  It’s a well-plotted sequence of events that ends the way it should.

And yet, The American could’ve been so much more.  It’s sometimes too mysterious for its own good.  (A little background on the opening tragedy would’ve been nice.)  It’s like the characters are well aware they’re being watched by an audience eager to know more about them and so they make sure not to reveal too much about themselves, especially their individual histories.  They tend to keep us at a safe distance. 

As entertaining and convincing as Clooney’s relationship with the whore is (they have a very erotic sex scene at one point), it’s not exactly original.  Neither is the whole one-more-assignment-and-I’m-done storyline.

But because the film is made skillfully and subtly, it’s easy to forgive these shortcomings.  The slow, deliberate pacing, those stunning visuals, the quiet nature of the proceedings all make the more exciting moments stand out more than they normally would.  And if there were still any doubts about George Clooney being this generation’s Cary Grant, The American will erase them for good.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, February 19, 2011
4:45 p.m.

Published in: on February 19, 2011 at 4:45 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] (the third Twilight movie), Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo, A Nightmare On Elm Street (2010), and The American – were properly reviewed in this space.  Only First Class and The American are worth seeing, […]

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