MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

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.

22 Responses to “Review – The American”

  1. Vik says:

    Can’t wait to see this film

  2. Pete says:

    Is the film you can’t talk about 127 Hours? That’s screening this week.

  3. Paul MD (Stella's Boy) says:

    Do people just not like retro thrillers like this anymore? Too dated and slow for modern audiences? Or are they simply just not as good?

  4. Vik says:

    David – The review is in a darker text but when you click to see or add comments the text changes to a harder to read grey text. I think that the darker text is better.

  5. Vik says:

    In a similar vein I should point out that on the main page that the text-links in the MCN Blogs section is a different blue (darker) than the Curated headlines section. Don’t know if that was intentional but I think that the darker blue may be easier to read than the lighter blue.

    Site is looking good though…

  6. chris says:

    In fairness to Lane, the old one about the whore who decides to give it away for free because she’s so into the dude, for whatever reason, is a worn-out, phony device (in a film I’d argue has several of them).

  7. Al E Ase says:

    Of all of the current crop of modern megastars, it really feels as if Clooney is trying the hardest to build a strong legacy, a filmography with classic films/performances

  8. LYT says:

    Am I allowed to think some aspects are brilliant, and others pedestrian? Or must it be all or nothing?

    Because I love the film’s style, but think that once you dig down to the substance, it’s all fairly rote, cliche stuff. The fact that you have to dig doesn’t necessarily make it deep.

  9. LYT says:

    Oh wow, my old Haloscan avatar. Didn’t know that was still floating in cyberspace.

  10. EthanG says:

    2 questions to DP:

    1. Is this better than “Goats”

    2. Any reaction to the inevitable shutout at the Oscars????

  11. IOv3 says:

    Paul? Yeah that makes sense. Yeah I think they are too slow for modern audiences sort of like the way Rubicon is too slow for modern audiences. It does not make them bad but slowing stuff down to mid-70s/early 80s way of movie making is just not going to endear itself to kids who move a mile a second.

  12. Al E Ase says:

    Wanted to enjoy Goats alot more than I actually did. If it’s on par with Clayton well that sounds pretty damn good, so what do you mean by shutout?

  13. chris says:

    Other movie sounds like “Never Let Me Go” to me. (Which I liked a lot, BTW.)

  14. Scriptie says:

    Put a link to your new site, here, on your old site. For people who have it on their iPad as an icon. So they can get here.

    American, The: sucked.

  15. Rorie says:

    Of the midnight Tuesday crowd I saw this with, two fell asleep (audible snores) and eight walked out. Out of maybe 20 people or so. Not a good sign for awesome word of mouth. Kind of wonder if this shouldn’t have been an arthouse budget and release.

  16. RoyBatty says:

    Saw it last night, the fall’s first disappointment – summer 2010’s losing streak continues.

    Completely predictable for the last 30 minutes. I’m a big Clooney fan, part of me wants to support a movie clearly aimed at mature adults and I like the way it skips ahead a few times to let the audience fill in the the obvious missing piece.


    But the fucking ending is right out of Hayes Code Hollywood. Perhaps Clooney, Henslov and Corbjin thought having him buy it in the end was European/anti-Hollywood but its actually what most audiences expect. I knew he had fucked with the gun to blow up in La Femme Mathilde’s face and I knew it was going to be the shoot each other, he dies from hidden gunshot BS. And that CGI butterfly keeping in front of the tree was basically the filmmakers going “see, SEE the butterfly! There it goes, watch it – it means SOMETHING!!!!”

    Leaving out why the Swedes want him dead was also a mistake. In a story like this, it isn’t the MacGuffin they think it is and would go a long way to explaining why his handler/boss/cliche Icy Euro Baddie wants him to die such a messy, public death. Anyone read the book?

    But for the first half, it’s a great ride.

  17. chris says:

    Is there an MCN coffee mug or something for guessing correctly?

  18. John says:

    This movie was surprisingly bad.Can’t belive it was released.Can’t believe I sat thru it.Can’t believe they were not refunding everyone’s money.
    People are obviously afraid to voice their true feelings
    for fear of upsetting this actor. Truth be told it was lousy.

  19. jrw says:

    Typo alert: “to make himself small, it impressive.” Maybe it = is.
    I saw the film last night. My escort did not care for it. I think embarrassed by the intimate scenes and wishing for more chase scenes.
    I liked it. I would have had much more sympathy for Jack and his desire for normalcy if we had not just watch him shoot his last lover in the back of the head after an intimate scene with her. I liked some of the Hitchocky scenes and lack of loud racey music. I liked that the character did not nose-dive into his new self, and was quite willing to shoot his new girlfriend in the name of self-preservation.
    This movie was about wanting more out of life after making a mess out of it. This was true with both lead characters. The prostitute and Jack had that in common.
    Whether Jack was deserving of a better life is debatable. I was happy the girl ended up with all the money and hope of a better life. And who knows. Maybe Jack did not die after all.

  20. jrw says:

    Give people some credit. Most know what they like or dislike and can tell you why. Some people simply feel uncomfortable with the sex and violence. Some people go to the movies to escape and just want a fast entertaining flik. It isn’t that they don’t get it. it is that they get it, but just don’t care for it.

  21. jrw says:

    give what away for free?

  22. jrw says:

    You are allowed :). It had good stuff and not so good stuff.

Leonard Klady's Friday Estimates
Friday Screens % Chg Cume
Title Gross Thtr % Chgn Cume
Venom 33 4250 NEW 33
A Star is Born 15.7 3686 NEW 15.7
Smallfoot 3.5 4131 -46% 31.3
Night School 3.5 3019 -63% 37.9
The House Wirh a Clock in its Walls 1.8 3463 -43% 49.5
A Simple Favor 1 2408 -50% 46.6
The Nun 0.75 2264 -52% 111.5
Hell Fest 0.6 2297 -70% 7.4
Crazy Rich Asians 0.6 1466 -51% 167.6
The Predator 0.25 1643 -77% 49.3
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The Hate U Give 0.17 36
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Exes Baggage 75,900 62
NOTA 71,300 138
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Afsar 45,400 33
Project Gutenberg 36,000 17
Love Yatri 22,300 41
Hello, Mrs. Money 22,200 37
Studio 54 5,300 1
Loving Pablo 4,200 15
3-Day Estimates Weekend % Chg Cume
No Good Dead 24.4 (11,230) NEW 24.4
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The Drop 4.4 (5,480) NEW 4.4
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The Giver 2.5 (1,120) -26% 41.2
The Hundred-Foot Journey 2.5 (1,270) -21% 49.4