By David Poland email@example.com
Review – The American
It’s an odd thing. About 20 minutes into The American and similarly in another film I can’t review right now (Sept 4), I was strongly struck by the sense that critics would be wildly split on the film. Masterpiece or Bore.
I feel The American is a beautifully rendered, intimate, deceivingly simple film loaded with emotional and intellectual mines that not everyone will choose to step on. It is the 70s film that George Clooney continues to try to make in his career. As I watched, I felt the movie was a kindred cousin of Zinnemann’s The Day Of The Jackal, albeit without the device of De Gaulle being threatened with assassination. It’s not because of rifles, but because of the quiet intimacy of a man doing his work. In this case, the central figure is far more self-reflective. It also reminded me a lot of Boorman’s Point Blank, as we wander through our central character’s history, though not always directly or with the most explained meanings… especially when a female character shows up and she is undeniably sexualized by the film and the holder of great power.
Anton Corbijn doesn’t seem interested in conventional storytelling here… and people who go into the film looking for it will be bitterly disappointed unless they allow themselves to get over their expectations. I don’t want to tell you the story elements, as you should experience them blindly, but essentially, it is a one-last-job movie, but the job is not a thrilling heist or a complex effort… it’s a job that creates introspection in Clooney’s character in great part because he is not pressed into much action.
And this is the power… and for some, the frustration of this film. The more action, the less Clooney’s character shows any thought about what he is doing or why he is doing it. He just reacts, never seeking more insight. And when he breathes, he lingers on his life, which flashes before his eyes, much as it repeats itself in the story.
I don’t want to make this about other critics, though this is one of those films that raises those hairs on the back of my neck in anticipation of the reviews. One item, for instance, is offered up by AO Scott in the NYT review, glibly suggesting that a prostitute in the story is drawn to Clooney’s American because of his sexual prowess. With due respect to a smart guy, he wasn’t really watching the movie. It is so clear in the film that her attraction to him is central to his story – the repeating relationships with women who are not meant to become intimate – and that it is not driven by her sexual interests (though she is very free with using her sexuality as bait), but by his seeming honesty and her wish to find another life with a good man. Maybe he got all of that and still wasn’t interested and decided to blow it off. But that’s not really fair to the work, is it?
Clooney’s effort here to dress down for the role… to make his beautiful face tight and unwilling… to turn those eyebrows into two roads with trucks blazing down them, headed for a crash… to make himself small, it impressive. He has worked hard to avoid all of his performance crutches, from the megawatt smile to the growl of a voice. Because of the filmmaking, he manages not to get caught in the Javier Bardem/Eat Pray Love problem of being too attractive for the role that might be better suited to the physicality of Richard Jenkins.
I quite like this film and won’t be surprised if I feel more deeply in love with future viewings. It strikes me odd that some reviews are suggesting that any of what those writers see as flaws were a function of an unsteady hand. I have no doubt, even more so than in Corbijn’s Control, that every choice in this film was quite well thought out, regardless of how it rubs one person or another. All kinds of small elements are more complex than you might expect in a more conventional film, from The Priest to The Mechanic (played by the great Filippo Timi) to The Buyer to the restaurateur who mocks the foreigner.
It’s not going to be everyone’s taste… and it certainly isn’t the movie that Focus is selling. But respect should be paid, in earnest. It’s a powerful, tiny tale whose whole story could dance on the head of a pin… but whose soul lingers and grabs and demands. For me, that’s a great night out at the movies.