Film review: The American

Duncan Wu finds unexpected depth in a tale of a fearful assassin, but not in the lead's acting

November 25, 2010

The American

Directed by Anton Corbijn

Starring George Clooney

Now on general release in the US

UK release date 26 November

According to The New York Times, The American has the dubious distinction of being "the most disliked movie of 2010", at least in the US. That's because its publicity materials sold it to the popcorn and hot dog crowd as the kind of hokum that its star, George Clooney, has often made in the past, when in fact it offers something more intriguing - and demanding.

Clooney plays Jack, a hired assassin forced to hide out in the Italian mountains of Abruzzo. There, he is to manufacture a special rifle for his next assignment on the instructions of a Belgian woman, Mathilde, played by Thekla Reuten, acting on behalf of a mysterious client.

Despite a couple of brief action sequences, the film's focus is not on Jack's exterior reality; it is more interested in his state of mind. Thus, its relation to the mainstream shoot-'em-up verges on the parodic; no wonder multiplex audiences were disappointed.

From the outset, we are dealing with a damaged personality. Clooney plays a character in constant fear, unable to relax even when alone. His boss warns: "You're not allowed to have friends!"

The film paints a plausible picture of what life must be like for such a person. It is full of images of a man divorced from life - walking through the alleyways of Castel del Monte, drinking coffee in cafes, going to brothels - immersed in the paranoia of extreme solitude. It is a kind of madness, an existence circumscribed entirely by fear.

Despite the admonition of his boss, he makes friends with two people: the local priest and a prostitute, Clara. "A priest sees everything," Father Benedetto tells him. Even though Jack claims to be a photographer, the priest knows what he really is. "You have done much sinning," he tells him, "and you still do. You cannot doubt the existence of Hell. You live in it."

This is probably the film's most important line, for it defines The American as a tale of damnation. We have been here before. The presence of a quiet American would be enough to tell us that - and the priest and prostitute confirm that we are in Greeneland.

Its director, Anton Corbijn, exploits the Italian settings in an original way, using them to complement the bleakness of the subject matter. Thus, Castel del Monte and the surrounding landscape are rendered in washed-out pastel tones that seem to underline the emptiness and ephemerality of Jack's life. And the screenwriter, Rowan Joffe, has brought something new to the olla podrida.

An incident early on reveals that Jack is prepared to kill his nearest and dearest if his survival demands it. So, as soon as he meets Clara, with whom he starts to fall in love, we are fearful of the moment when he will put his pistol to her head and pull the trigger.

Yet for all his ruthlessness, he is capable of telling Clara not to move when a butterfly lands on her: "It's endangered," he says. The insect symbolises a romanticism that his calling obliges him to suppress, and at the same time represents his fragile hold on life.

Unfortunately the film's makers hammer home this point with a pneumatic drill - Jack has a butterfly tattooed on his back and is called "Mr Butterfly" by his client and "Signor Farfalle" by Clara - a lot.

The most pervasive problem with the film is, I think, its star, who delves into reserves similar to those mined in Michael Clayton. As in that film, I found it hard to believe in his character's inner desperation, perhaps because his face remains, beyond a certain point, inarticulate, as if burdened by some strange, built-in impassivity.

There are others better equipped for the task, though none with as much star power - which explains what he's doing here.

Nonetheless, The American tackles an old-fashioned subject in an original way, and provides the only opportunity you are likely to have this year of seeing a butterfly performing to order - a pleasure contained in the astonishing final shot.

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