Friday, September 10, 2010

Danny Gets Real With THE AMERICAN.


- I don't know if The American fully works as a movie, but at the least, I give it props for its unique approach in telling its story. The movie is methodically paced, short on dialogue, and lean on plot or character details. It feels very European, very 70's-ish, very retro overall. I dug the aesthetic, and loved the movie's stunning scenery and exotic locales. There were moments when I was sucked in, when I found myself getting lost in the lush landscapes and atmospheric storytelling. And yet, the movie never really comes together in any meaningful way. For all of its eye-pleasing cinematography, the movie never truly gives you much to sink your teeth into. Not much actually happens. That could be okay in some instances, but I think The American is set up in such a way that its trying to get us invested in its lead character. We're supposed to wonder about him, to wonder what it must be like to live his life. But the movie's sparse style ultimately backfires. It leaves us feeling empty and unsatisfied. Nonetheless, I'd say The American is worth checking out if only because it is, in many ways, a refreshing alternative to the standard spy movie. The pacing, the look, the feel of the film is going to really surprise people who go in expecting a standard-issue George Clooney action thriller. It's going to turn people off, because make no mistake, this is an art film disguised as a Hollywood blockbuster. For that reason, you've got to respect it at least a little. At the same time, artsy doesn't always automatically equal incredible, and The American is proof that attempting to be abstract and experimental doesn't always pay off as the artist intended.

The American stars Clooney as Jack, a veteran weapons-maker who crafts ultra high-precision firearms for use by trained assassins. We don't know much about Jack - we're not sure if he is or was an assassin himself, but we get the sense that he's been a longtime player in this high stakes and dangerous world, and is ready to get out. Jack had been laying low in Europe with a woman, possibly thinking that he could stay off the grid. Of course, Jack was wrong. Soon enough, his past catches up to him, and he's back in the game, doing one last job for his old employer. Working out of a remote mountain village in Italy, Jack tells the locals that he's a nature photographer on assignment, when in fact he spends his days creating a precision sniper rifle for use in some sort of high profile assassination. When he's not meeting with his client - a femme fatale spy type, he's striking up a reluctant friendship with the chatty local priest, or cavorting with a stunning prostitute who has taken a more-than-professional liking to him. All the while, Jack is becoming increasingly paranoid that he'll be found out by people out to get him. He's contstantly on high alert for anyone who might want to find him and kill him, and he's constantly haunted by the horrors of his life as a professional killer.

Again, the setup for the film is very bare bones. The film drops us into the middle of Jack's life-in-progress and never really takes the time to catch us up on what, exactly, has gotten us to this point in the story. It's an interesting concept - letting us observe this character without a lot of context - seeing him operate and seeing how he thinks, but never having a real grasp of the bigger picture. For parts of the film, this storytelling style works in part because we're able to ignore the particulars of the plot and just immerse ourselves in the visuals. Director Anton Corbijn has long, lingering shots of the European countryside - of hills, forests, and streams, of old villages and snow-covered vistas, of quaint cafes and winding cobblestone streets. The American, ironically enough given the title, does a remarkable job of transporting you to these other places. If nothing else, you'll have a hankering to go backpacking through Europe after seeing this film. By the same token, Corbijn seems to transport us to another time as well. On one hand, the presence of cell phones and other modern tech clearly places this film in the present day. And yet, everything from the cinematic stylings to the hairstyles and fashions indicates a bygone era. The movie screams 70's-era cool - you half-expect a young Elliot Gould to pop up and share a cigarette with Clooney in some out-of-the-way cafe.

So yeah, clearly, the movie has a ton of style and sense of place. In a weird way, it almost reminded me a bit of Let The Right One In - if only because that was another movie with a heavily European aesthetic, whose extremely methodical pace allowed for lingering shots of flora and fauna and other quietly reflective atmospherics. Does the pacing mean that The American gets boring at times? I think so, yeah. Whereas Let The Right One In presented us with an increasingly fascinating and disturbing plotline, The American never gives us any great payoffs to all the slowly-building tension. The plot is thin, and yet a lot of time is spent building up a couple of key mysteries - Who is Jack really working for? Who is their target? And ... Who are the mysterious men after Jack, and why? Maybe there's a way to address these questions without spelling everything out, but the movie doesn't find it. Instead, it stumbles towards its conclusion with an ending that's ultimately pretty frustrating in its ambiguity and pointlessness.

The bottom line is that The American is very nice to look at, filled with exotic locales and beautiful women, and anchored by a strong, commanding performance from George Clooney. While the pacing and ambiguity of the plot can occasionally cause boredom and confusion, for a while at least, these qualities help to create an atmospheric, immersive sort of arthouse storytelling that's a nice change of pace. But, the movie ultimately doesn't have much to it aside from its amazing imagery. The muddy plot and half-formed characters make it hard to care all that much about Jack and his standard "one-last-job" scenario. In fact, there aren't really any truly compelling *ideas* in this one, and that's too bad, because the movie very vaguely hints at some attempts to find deeper meaning or subtext in its imagery and characters, but I think it ends up coming up empty. That means you may leave the film with that feeling of "so ... that was it?". The American is worth a look, though. I give it credit for ditching convention and being (at least aesthetically) original. The fact that this somewhat oddball arthouse movie was the #1 movie in America this past weekend is, in fact, kind of cool.

My Grade: B

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