The American–Orion’s Take
The American is a beautifully shot, beautifully acted film that takes many of the conventions of a spy thriller and uses them to evoke paranoia in the viewer’s mind. The very first few scenes exploit the viewer’s expectations: in one shot, the scene cuts to a view from a high, wooded area onto the very exposed figures of Jack (George Clooney) and his lover Ingrid (Irina Björklund) in the snow. I instantly thought, “Oh, what an exposed area. This would be a perfect viewpoint for a sniper.” But the music hadn’t changed. After a few tense moments (for me) the movie cuts back to a medium close-up and I breathed a sigh of relief when suddenly the music just died. And then I realized that something was going to happen, something I had known was going to happen but ignored simply because the music didn’t fit what I predicted.
Jack, an assassin, or a spy, or a gun manufacturer, is a man without a home. After the disastrous events in Sweden he makes a measured retreat to Italy, where he meets up with his handler Pavel (Johan Leysen) who tells him to lay low in a small town in Italy.
Jack is a quiet man. His life in Italy is a quiet one, except for those few moments in which unspeakable violence unfolds around him. He is an assassin, or a spy, or a modifier of guns. He is a man desperately fighting against the advances of old age: Clooney’s still fit form is marred by a slight stoop in his shoulders. Jack is getting old. His moniker, “Mr. Butterfly,” is amusing and apt.
This film is filled with silences and spaces. Director Anton Corbijn uses the general silence of the film to great effect. Small noises become distinct. The music fades in and out so seamlessly that when the music invokes tension one is only aware of it after it is gone. Corbijn uses these tools to illustrate the tense and (bizarrely) mundane life of a contract killer. The setup of each shot beautifully evokes claustrophobia: one scene in a café has one shot where Clooney is placed in the lower right of the shot, the walls and window stretching into the rest of the screen, the window giving us a view of the suspiciously parked car outside. We are contained, just as Jack is contained, in the café, forced to wait for something that never happens.
Somehow this film perfectly captures that nameless paranoia that arises when walking home alone at night. The small panics that arise when we hear footsteps, the darting looks we shoot over our shoulders, the desire to run or to scream or to remain silent.
The characters around Jack are almost archetypes: the fatherly priest with a secret, the sensual yet strangely innocent prostitute, the gravelly-voiced handler, the femme fatale. I say archetype instead of stereotype because these are not exaggerated characters, not over-simplifications. These characters are raw, pure forms of what we imagine them to be.
The fact of the matter is, The American will be disparaged more than many of its fellow summer movies. Part of the problem is the marketing surrounding the film. Recognizing the financial issues that come with producing a more contemplative film, somebody up high decided to spin this film as an action thriller. Let’s get one thing straight. There are three action scenes in the entire movie. Less than 10 people die in the entire film. Yet this film is so visually and emotionally arresting that I immersed myself in it and could not escape.
The only reason this movie is not receiving five waffles is because the plot is simply too strained to hold all of these details together. A simple plot is fine, but a simple and unbelievable plot detracts from the excellent atmosphere. I cannot believe that Jack, who foresees so much in this film, would be unable to foresee the “twist” at the end. Other than that small issue, this is an excellent film.
Now that I got that pretentious, artsy-fartsy review out of the way, I have two points. For those who complain that this movie is pretentious: I fail to see why. Sure, you can analyze this film, but the fact of the matter is that this movie can be enjoyed purely because of the way it is filmed. Or if that doesn’t appeal to you, you could enjoy the character development. Are you calling this movie pretentious because it forces you to think? Or merely because you don’t like it? Comments are welcome.
Secondly, for those who thought that this movie was boring: I can’t really tell you that you’re wrong, because you were obviously bored. I can say that it is incorrect to say that “nothing happened.” On the contrary, lots of things happened. People were killed. Of course, unlike The Expendables, Jack doesn’t kill over 9000 people, but I think that he can be forgiven this little sin. Jason Bourne is an international fugitive. Jack doesn’t even have a last name.
Hugs and Kisses,