Ever wonder what the life of a professional assassin would be like in real life? My guess is it would be a little less romantic, prolific and lucrative than it has been made out to be in popular culture. If less is what you are looking for, then Anton Corbijn’s The American certainly delivers in spades. Now, whether you are of the school of thought that less is more or less, is in fact less, is entirely up to the viewer. However, I will say that if you are not a fan of the Cohen Brothers or more specifically No Country For Old Men (2007), chances are very likely that you’ll pass on The American.
Although precise details as to the budget for this particular film were not available at the time of this review’s composition, everything about this film screams low budget. George Clooney is the only name actor featured, special effects are minimal, the cast is very small, and it is filmed entirely on location in Italy. Low budget does not necessarily mean a bad movie, or too artsy or too high minded to be entertaining. However, it does mean that you are not going to witness Die Hard amounts of explosions, bullet riddled corpses or car crashes. Regardless of the amount of money this film cost to make, it is certainly making a splash at the box office raking in $16.6 million for its opening weekend. Those are some big numbers for a small Indy film, but it could also be artificially inflated due to Clooney’s allure as a magnet to women of virtually all ages. In the coming weeks, we will see if this film truly resonates with the rest of America.
As to the film itself, the first thing that is quite noticeable is the piercing silence prevalent throughout. Rest assured, there remains a standard soundtrack of generic sound effects for movement and atmosphere, but background music is few and far between. In addition, these frequent moments of absolute silence are coupled with equally awkward segments of no dialogue. The only purpose for this is to emphasize (to a fault) the extreme isolation George Clooney’s character Jack, is constantly burdened by. It certainly make sense that a freelance assassin showing a track record for results and reliability would be an individual many would want to employ and then liquidate so as to eliminate any and all evidence in connection with the original target. The very first scene in the film suggests precisely that and establishes Jack as an individual who imposes a personal exile from standard society as a means of self preservation.
This film’s story provides the potentially interesting scenario of turning the exceptional, yet paranoid hunter into the prey. The screenplay, written by relative novice Rowan Joffe (Last Resort, 2000 and 28 Weeks Later, 2007) was based on a novel written by another relative novice, Martin Booth (2 novels credited to him). These facts provide a thorough explanation for this story’s less than stellar presentation. I understand how minimalism can be used to allow the audience to fill in small plot gaps which allows for the story to evolve naturally and personally. However, dressing down the perceived lifestyle of a professional hit man to the point where nothing interesting remains, does not make for good fiction. This unfortunately, happens to be the case for The American. Everything about this script: from the original idea, to the dialogue, to the pace takes great pains to deny any form of transparency to the audience. Jack is an obviously attractive and charismatic character that begs to be delved into, but every moment we are presented with a possibility to discover more about him, the audience is greeted by a scene of silent rumination, or a scene change, or a cut away to Clooney working out shirtless. It seems to me that the writers could not think outside the restrictions of a no frills, assassin tale. It is true that a good story does not need to be spoon fed to an audience, but it helps if there is any food to satisfy in the first place.
One interesting aspect of this film was the social dynamic involved with an American of any sort spending significant time anywhere in Europe. Sadly, this aspect of the story was barely hinted at during this film as Europe is currently a place most Americans would regard as somewhat unfriendly during these terrible times. If this film was set in France, the allure to turn it into some kind of political statement would have been too great to pass up and would have exponentially increased its quality and appeal. As The American is set in Italy, the audience is privy to only a few verbal barbs tossed Clooney’s way regarding his Americanism and implied ignorance as a result. Perhaps this was a more prevalent issue for the original novel: A Very Private Gentleman.
George Clooney is a stud of a leading man for any film production and every year that passes since his involvement with Batman and Robin (1997), he continues to earn back his credibility inch by inch. The American is no exception as he is given plenty of self reflecting moments to endear himself to the audience without the use of his patented smirk. Although he has very few moments to interact with any other actor, Clooney maximizes the intimacy level which is not exclusive to his female counterparts. The relationship Jack develops with Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) is particularly effective in revealing the truth of Jack’s nature as a man of violence, yet a man very much in control. Paolo does an exquisite job portraying a priest that you could have a drink with minus any “holier than thou” attitude in your face.
As for the women, well let’s just say that Georgie-boy gets all the tough assignments working with extremely attractive and exotic femme fatales. Jack’s rival assassin played by Thekla Reuten and the hooker he employs, played by Violante Placido, both provide serious contenders to expose Jack’s soft and sensitive side. Jack is attracted to both women but his pursuit of them is tempered by his paranoia of death by betrayal. Thekla’s ability to match Clooney’s assertiveness onscreen makes her out to be a very qualified and capable mate whereas Violante’s raw sexuality and sincere desire to be simply taken care of produces a very different appeal. What I found interesting about all the women in Jack’s life is that they were all made up to look very similar to each other. This couldn’t be an obvious metaphor for the shared fate of all the women in Jack’s life, could it? As a side note, the love scene between Clooney and Violante is particularly steamy and shot in a very classy erotica manner, thankfully revealing no stray man parts. Yes, I’ll admit it. When it comes to nudity on the screen, I am completely sexist!
However, not even gratuitous nudity by very sexy women can save The American from the snooze fest that it is. The potential of getting into a very thick plot, layered with metaphor is there, but holds at arms’ length. There is simply too much silence amidst the action for this film to even come close to being classified as a thriller. This is the kind of script that will be picked up by more talented writers at some point in the future and have it be applied to a more fruitful culmination. There really are several quality wide shots of the Italian countryside featured in this film, but if I wanted a tour, I’d hop on a plane.