The American 09/02/2010
As coughs and whispers echoed through the auditorium in which I was viewing Anton Corbijn’s The American I became acutely aware that my distaste for the mainstream cinema audiences was partly fueling my appreciation for the film. This isn’t to say my judgment is heavily clouded but rather that this film is worth celebrating for reasons outside of its critical successes. That The American is gracing countless multiplex screens right now is something of a mini-miracle. How a film so full of silence, and so devoid of action beats, was made in the Hollywood system is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps Clooney’s involvement as a producer earned Corbijn some sort of carte blanche usually privy only to those with stalwart reputations like the Coens. The opening scene, a haunting sequence amidst an endless blanket of snow, sets the tone immediately and it became clear the audience was not going to be on board for a film that required their participation. The fidgeting in my peripheral vision aside, my experience with The American was of deep involvement.
The film is about a man so enveloped in secrecy that he virtually does not exist. Or as a kind priest suggests, one of the few key figures in The American, Clooney’s character lives in hell because he lives without love. This notion is not new to Clooney’s character, who receives no definitive naming in the film (he is credited as Jack/Edward), as his journey is one where he desperately seeks human connection. He is a hit man recuperating after an ambush at the onset of the film. He takes a job in Rome; he has to supply a mysterious woman, Mathilde, with a customized firearm. He immediately finds himself in a whorehouse, where he meets Clara. When Clooney’s American returns to the whorehouse and is told Clara is not available, he turns and leaves. He treats Clara as a lover, and soon their relationship extends beyond the borders of prostitute and client. The question then becomes will he be able to reveal himself to her, will he love and be loved, or will his guarded persona not allow any personal happiness. While a possible redemption of sorts awaits Clooney’s American at the end of the film, he maintains his secrecy throughout. Whenever he exits the frame, Corbijn’s camera lingers on that which he leaves behind and defocuses as if to say whatever he passes is erased once he moves on. However, his past will not let go of him, and memories of the ordeal from the beginning of the film emerge in his nightmares.
Early on in the film we are unsure of which woman Clooney is interested in. His demeanor suggests an attraction towards both Clara and Mathilde. When he meets with Mathilde in order to give her a test run with her requested weapon, they find a secluded spot in the forest, and have what I suppose must pass as an assassin’s picnic. They lay a blanket on the grass and Mathilde fiddles with the gun while Clooney intently watches. Each time they meet, Mathilde’s appearance shifts, and her character never really becomes clearer so that by the end of the film her presence seems to symbolize the women in his life. This makes his final act towards her especially devastating. As Mathilde becomes less of a character and more of a symbol, Clara becomes the definitive object of affection. Throughout the film his character seems unable to trust and encounters situations that test him in this regard and each time he fails. His final act towards Mathilde is one of absolute mistrust. Perhaps his final exchange with Clara displays a changed man, but even so, it is too late.
Some of the heights reached by the film are considerable such as something I thought not possible: being made to cry for George Clooney. Indeed, this is the best use of the iconic star in cinema. Not coincidentally, the second best would be Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, wherein his presence is only vocal (but nonetheless impressive!). Here the key move is once again the muting of Clooney’s presence. Corbijn nary allows his American a smile, and emoting rarely comes into play, until the inevitably tragic conclusion approaches. Corbijn makes Clooney out to be just a small presence dominated by his surroundings as he is constantly framed in front of vast, looming, landscapes and roads, or daunting European architecture. The American plays more like Antonioni’s The Passenger than say, The Bourne films.
The quiet, sad, journey of Clooney’s American may be slow but it is always engaging. We observe as he desperately seeks connection but ultimately refuses it, as regret consumes him, and as he goes through the motions pointlessly. As Clooney works on his assignment, Corbijn plays these scenes as lamentations, such as what must be the most solemn assembling of a weapon I’ve seen. His character is shown futilely working out in his hotel room, and as he makes himself stronger on the outside, he becomes increasingly vulnerable. In his intriguing exchanges with the aforementioned priest, we yearn for him to confess. The priest has an unusual interest in Clooney, and his concern for him is genuine, like that of a father. Nevertheless, Clooney’s character persists in leading his quasi-existence.
The American is just about the best film of 2010 so far, and while I know better films await me on the festival circuit (how strange that this didn’t play the festival circuit), this deserves recognition for coming out of the Hollywood system. It’s probably no surprise that the best couple films to come out of America in the last few months were directed by foreigners (the other being Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim). The American is an unexpectedly daring film, but I fear its stay in multiplexes will be short-lived. Scott Pilgrim’s turn at the box office was disappointing to say the least, which is bewildering when one considers it may be the most fun film this year. The common issue here is simple: success at the multiplex is a nearly impossible feat when the general audience considers deviating from formula as a form of failure. Want to prove me wrong? Go see The American.