The American


americanAnton Corbijn’s The American is packed with achievements other filmmakers in this genre attempt but fail: a truly gripping story, genuine sympathy for the Boring Hero, and a disguise so convincing that a fairly run-of-the mill thriller (based on a run-of-the-mill novel) becomes a thoughtful drama.  I once thought I was coming close to the latter with a screenplay I was working on, but alas, my hard drive crashed, and the only person with a copy still refuses to hand it over for reasons I will never know.  Anyway, in addition to what other filmmakers try, this film also achieves a few things other makers of thrillers forget about entirely – generally accurate portrayals of firearms (not just what they look like, but how precise a shooter can be at what range with what gun, what a silenced gun actually sounds like, etc.), an extra mite of thought into characterization, and artful direction.

The story centers around “Mr. Butterfly” (also known as Jack and Edward), played by the aging George Clooney.  Jack is an assassin and a maker of firearms, which he can apparently finagle from the simplest of items when he needs to.  In his age, though, he has become paranoid and bored.  His personality has become stony and impenetrable, a technique that often results in an uninteresting and underdeveloped character in a film like this (see Jason Statham in every American film he’s in), but here, the Boring Hero is redeemed.  He doesn’t act this way for the sake of the audience; he’s actually afraid.  Rival assassins are after him, and for good reason.  Love and all other forms of attachment evade him, and after being forced to execute a loved one to protect his identity, he’s resorted to seeing a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido) with whom he can fake fidelity.  Jack works for a sun-dried criminal who calls himself Pavel (the great Belgian actor Johan Leysen).  Pavel fills in another routine thriller role, the Shadow Premiere.  We never really find out who he is or what his reasons might be; we just know Jack has to do what he says.

For being based on a novel that tends to be shootout-y, the film focuses on Jack’s paranoia and attempts at living a life in Italy while he goes through the motions of his job.  A classic femme fatale called Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) is his newest client, asking for a blah-blah-blah gun with blah-blah-blah specifications for a blah-blah-blah murder.  She pops up three separate times in the film, each time with completely different hair.  Refreshingly, we don’t get the sense that this is intended to “symbolize” anything; it’s just an indication of the kind of shady and dangerous life she lives.  Clooney and Reuten, who played the sweetheart innkeeper in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, share a wonderful scene at a picnic area, during which the dialogue is so well delivered that the inclusion of bullets and butterflies in the same conversation doesn’t seem odd in the least.  The cast also includes Paolo Bonacetti as Father Benedetto, a kind old priest who befriends Jack, but his involvement in the story yields no real results in the end.

The final eighth of the film falls into thriller formula – running from bad guys, finding out who characters are “really” working for, twists that surprise Jack but not the audience, camera shots from within a sniper’s scope, and head-shots aplenty.  What saves the day is that Corbijn doesn’t change the tone – everything is still understated.  Death is never glorified nor accompanied by a crescendo.  The artfully-done love scenes with Clara become longer each time they happen, while the gun-construction and workout scenes become shorter, perhaps suggesting that Jack is more focused on love again, though he still doesn’t know whether he can really trust Clara (or, for that matter, anyone else in the film) until the final five minutes.  We share his paranoia because Corbijn wisely never leaves Jack’s perspective (until that final eighth I mentioned, and even then, only long enough to state two lines of dialogue that make us fear for Jack more than ever).

The American is a film that will put a smile on the face of those who (incorrectly) believe that “every story has already been told” and that “you can only tell old stories in new ways, not new stories.”  The film follows a specific formula comprised of stock characters, but it’s one of those gems in which the casting is picture-perfect, the care put into the storytelling is brilliantly evident, and our sympathies allow themselves to lie with a killer, because for an hour and forty-five minutes, he becomes a real person.  From the staggering opening scene to the sobering and inevitable conclusion, the audience walks a dark corridor with Jack, observing his decisions but never quite judging them, because as Al Green once said,  “Love’ll make you do right, love’ll make you do wrong.”

The American (2010); written by Rowan Joffé (based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth); directed by Anton Corbijn; starring George Clooney, Violante Placido and Thekla Reuten.