REVIEWED: THE AMERICAN (LFF – DAY 4)

The American

The American is one of the year's most peculiar outings.

In his brief introductory speech at the London Film Festival premiere of The American, director Anton Corbijn declared, “I made the film, I didn’t make the trailer”. Perhaps an offhand comment, but likely an attempt to acquit himself after the film’s mild critical reception stateside – quickly quashing the initial Oscar hype – it is an apt tactic in cushioning the blow, but most audiences will not be so lucky as to recieve a personal apology from the director. That said, while The American is brooding to a fault, Clooney is as reliable as ever and Corbijn – who began his career as an acclaimed photographer and made his feature film debut with 2007’s superb, not to mention gorgeous-looking, Control – captures the sights of rural Italy beautifully.

When a botched assignment lands hotshot assassin Jack (George Clooney) in trouble, he is ordered by his boss to lie low in Italy’s Abruzzo mountains where, presumably, nothing can go wrong. He finds an apparently innocuous job opportunity there, when Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) asks him to build her a long-range, rapid-fire rifle, while juggling the rest of his time between reflecting on his moral slate with Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), and forging a romantic bond with a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido).

Under Corbijn’s command, The American is an unusual “existential thriller” as he puts it, supplanting a so-called “art-house” aesthetic onto familiar James Bond-inspired elements – the occasional gunfight, shady meetings, and not one but two femme fatales. The matter-of-fact treatment of the genre – giving the protagonist the typical hero name of Jack, and making most of the assailants throughout generic, faceless rent-o-kills – implies a satirical engagement with the genre, but it is oddly straight-laced, making for a confounding – albeit not all bad – mix.

The real question remains; does the European flavour really add anything? It certainly slackens the pace, leaving plenty of room for moody glimpses of George Clooney’s best frowny face, but does it ever say much, and is it ever very interesting or even entertaining? The film certainly asks moral questions, such as at what cost is redemption earned, and to whom, but for all of the lingering glances at crucifixes, it doesn’t seem to amount to all that much.

It is difficult to compare to many recent films, but the best simple sell is that it is a more serious-minded In Bruges (which Rueten also starred in, coincidentally), for the shell plot is virtually identical. The difference comes in the detail – Jack talks ammo and weapon specs with his leadling ladies here. Writer Rowan Joffe evidently takes pleasure in the smallest intricacies, focusing many minutes on sniper scope adjustments and, in one of the best moments, having Clooney build a gigantic silencer out of used car parts.

Though the art house is known for its restraint and minimalism, this film oddly is not without its excesses; a pompous scene lingering on a butterfly makes for a lazy, overly flowery allegory about Jack’s surely impending extinction, while a reference to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is downright bone idle (we get it, Anton; you’re trying to make a Nuovo Western).

Devaluing the screenplay quite considerably is the direction and acting. Corbijn, though not the paciest man for the job, can paint one Hell of a pretty picture, and there are tonnes of memorable shots here (a gorgeously designed aerial shot of Clooney’s car driving along a winding road being the stand-out). Clooney, though given little (or in fact, too much) to work with makes a good attempt, but ultimately he can’t wrestle importance or meaning out of this story well enough (not even Daniel Day Lewis would be able to). The supporting players, meanwhile, are solid, especially Bonacelli as the imperfect priest, and Placido as Clara, whose frequently naked body evidently loves Corbijn’s immaculate production.

The situational psychology – that Jack falls for Clara, a woman who closely resembles the apparently treacherous ex-lover he dutifully murdered at the start of the film, despite her duplicity seeming ambiguous to us – is palpable, but the angst of conflict, of not wanting to kill but being unable to do anything else comfortably or safely, is too subdued and inadequately conveyed. However, along the bent of a more typical action film, there are some cheap thrills; a neat “gotcha!” at a critical moment will surprise audiences, and those final few scenes are umistakably tense. Still, Clooney only really gets to unravel at the very end, by which point all is virtually said and done.

The film’s marketing – touting it as a wild, fast-paced action thriller – may make fiscal sense to a studio, but it inexorably mangles audience expectations. The film’s fairly middling U.S. box office returns (given Clooney’s assured stature on the Hollywood A-list) are unsurprising, nor is the fact that the type of audience attracted by the ads are going to be turned off by the departure in style and tone.

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