George Clooney stars as Jack, a hitman/arms dealer who travels to Italy to provide a rifle for an assassin. The film is contemplative and atmospheric, with minimal dialogue, slowly building tension, and a simple and straightforward plot. It shoots for style and finesse over action scenes and explosions. Plus, it has George Clooney. Salt and pepper all the way.
The main thing that modern audiences will struggle with here is the plot. It is much slower than contemporary films, and it features only a few short action scenes amongst a lot of contemplative assembling of rifles. This is essentially one of the strengths of the film, but it sets it outside the set of films that would normally be enjoyed by typical audiences. Despite all of its slowness and silence, the film actually has an extremely solid script. The dialogue is good, the pacing is wonderful, and the basic progression of events is masterful in its planning and its execution. Jack is a fascinating character, always surprising the audience with subtleties in his psychology. His past is left almost completely untouched, which makes him mysterious, but also extremely understandable. Jack is not only referred to as “The American,” but also “Mr. Butterfly.” His nickname tells us a lot about his character: he flits about, only resting in one place briefly before moving on. He is paranoid, and rightly so. He can only stay in one place briefly because it prevents assassins from learning his identity. This also prevents Jack from having a relationship, so he resorts to hiring prostitutes to satisfy his need for intimacy.
The story plays off the conflict between Jack’s paranoia and this need for intimacy. Jack finds love through an Italian prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), but he cannot escape from the fact that his paranoia complicates their relationship. He wishes to settle down, but he knows that logistically this would not work because of his reputation. Instead, he must “settle down” by incorporating a constant (Clara, in this case) into his fragmented life. They would still be forced to travel all over the globe in order to escape prying eyes, but at least Jack wouldn’t be alone in his struggle to remain a step ahead of his pursuers.
The camera work speaks to an experimental documentary of the Italian countryside, but with really good lighting. The American is an absolutely gorgeous film, favoring static, long shots that showcase the beauty, grit, contrast, and form of Italy and its inhabitants. There is no single shot that wasn’t rendered without this in mind. Even in a close up of someone’s face, we see the geography of the skin like it was a mountainside, meadow, or cliff face. Wide shots on the other hand, frame the countryside like a photograph. It is not just picturesque scenes however, as things look beautiful one moment, then menacing the next. This is done strictly through lighting and framing changes that really bring out different aspects of the same subject, object, or landscape.
It is a shame that The American did not have the critical success that it deserved. It is currently hovering around 62% on RottenTomatoes, a full 10% less than the other large release last week: Machete. While I have not seen Robert Rodriguez’s new film, I’ve heard that it was quite unimpressive. Comparisons aside, my opinion is that The American is one of the best films of the year. Anyone interested in cinematography or screenwriting should definitely check it out, as it is very good in both cases.
Be sure to leave any feedback or comments on the left.
(All ratings are out of five, with halves)
Story: **** 1/2
Art Direction: **** 1/2
Overall “Film as Entertainment” Rating: *** 1/2
Overall “Film as Art” Rating: *****
Overall: **** 1/2