The American Re-View
What’s a ‘Re-View‘? For starters it is either a horrible pun or a horrible abbreviation. For us it means we’re watching old shows or films and reviewing them. We’re ‘re-viewing’ them, or viewing them for the first time and reviewing them. Or even ‘retroactively-viewing’ them if that’s better for your pun hating soul.
The Internet is home to many contemporary reviews for contemporary shows and films. However older properties have not been given this treatment as often as perhaps they deserve. I say perhaps because we’ll see exactly what they deserve in the process. Enjoy.
I like George Clooney. He’s charming. He can make any dialogue seductive. He can make any kinda prick alluring. In The American Clooney plays a man with two names (Jack or Edward) and neither of them are real. Therefore he is a man with no name. Clooney’s performance is understated with little dialogue or obvious characterisation and yet he is still likable. The film, after a brief sequence in Sweden, is set primarily in rural Italy. Clooney’s protagonist is also a hit-man and weapon designer/maker. He is both a gun-for-hire and a man who makes literal guns-for-hire. So the film is in Italy, with a gun-toting outlaw and he is a man with no name. If these parallels with spaghetti westerns aren’t stronger enough for you at one point Clooney is watching Once Upon a Time in the West on TV. The American is still a crime thriller however, not a Western or Western homage. Rather director Anton Corbijn is borrowing the moody silences and tension of Sergio Leone’s Westerns. Thankfully he doesn’t borrow the production values of lesser known spaghetti Westerns as The American is, at the least, a visual treat.
The film captures stunning vistas of rural Italy in various locations at different times of day. This being a slow and quiet film the optics are wisely made varied. However this is not cinematography as an exercise in style over substance. The shots of rural Italy show it as beautiful yet cut-off and confining. This combined with very selective usage of sound. The sound and visuals combine to create a constant mood of stifled hope and dreams to complement our protagonist’s mind state. It also suits the action. There are narrow cobbled streets and dark alleys and graveyards for the Leone styled confrontations. These confrontations aren’t overly choreographed like a full-on action film. In this world when you shoot at a guy he usually dies. When there is a car chase everyone is scared and their driving reflects that. When Clooney has to sneak up on a man he doesn’t cling to walls, but simply take his shoes off and approach in socks.
Often films that lack normal amounts of dialogue are scarce for characterisation. The American is surprisingly rich with characters. Clooney’s hit-man is a tired professional. He’s flirting with leaving the hit-man life, but this is only represented through his loyalty to a series of individual prostitutes and his love of butterflies. The butterfly is an obvious symbol of rebirth that sits ironically next to Clooney’s repetitive rut of a life. When making love to prostitutes he tries to give them as much pleasure as he receives: he wants someone to be able to give to. This desire of his eventually leads to disaster. However he shows himself capable of killing someone he cares for without hesitation. At one point I was worried about the film tilting into total cliché when Clooney forms a relationship with a priest. I was scared about heavy-handed themes dealing with remorse, guilt and sin. Instead Clooney just shook the hopeful priest to his core with convincing moral relativism. This hit-man knows who he is and what he wants and it’s not religion or forgiveness. When the film eventually does hit a cliché, the ‘one last job’ trope, it has earned this plot element with an hour of build up to the decision.
The motivation for this decision is Clooney’s new lover Clara, a prostitute played without exploitation by Violante Placido. She’s a fierce presence of her own. She enjoys her job without shame and the film and its protagonist don’t shame her for it either. When Clooney is enjoying ‘giving’ to her the film focuses on her pleasure with Clooney off screen. This depiction of female sexual pleasure is unfortunately rare. Clara is given a life of her own away from Clooney, with friends and interests. When their relationship blooms beyond a simple contract the sharing of lifestyles goes both directions. Much of their scenes together are delightfully direct. Clooney is getting old and knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it. Clara is an employee in the sex industry and thus is not coy either. Their direct dialogue is motivated by character and doesn’t corrupt the relatively quiet nature of the film. It is a joy to have a film about a hit-man without much male gaze and even with some female gaze. I believe there are even more supporting female characters than male characters.
The American is a film dealing with existential doubt, romance and inescapable criminal backgrounds. Whilst Clooney is being blissfully romantic the film stays cynical. One knows he is being idealistic about quitting his profession and taking flight with Clara. The film never follows him into this sentimentality. In the end the plot (driven almost entirely by character) ties all the personal and professional plot strands together for an unsurprising ending. However the way the ending is handled is inspired. Clooney’s protagonist doesn’t approach the dangerous climax with a cool head, but with tears and near-crippling fear.
This is a slow film with glacial pacing designed to match the Leone homage and the quiet empty life Clooney starts with. Corbijn manages to pull off a wonderful balancing act with the amount of ‘thrilling’ sequences and character sequences, done with a slow pace, in only one hundred minutes.