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Theatrical Review: THE AMERICAN

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
September 6th, 2010

Rating: 2.5/5

Writers: Rowan Joffe (screenplay), Martin Booth (novel)
Director: Anton Corbijn

Cast: George Clooney, Thekla Reuten, Violante Placido, Paolo Bonacelli, Johan Leysen
Studio: Focus Features

There should be no simpler formula for box office gold and critical acclaim than George Clooney, plus vague spy occupation, multiplied by Italian countryside, divided by two equally dangerous women. But what happens when our own leading man wants nothing more than to get away from said “vague spy occupation,” and everything else is just distraction from the crushing emptiness that amounts to a life of pursuit that only ends with, well, no reward. What awaits someone who has spent their entire life on the fringes of society and law? THE AMERICAN is not a Bourne-born spy flick with Clooney stalking through dark alleys, gun in hand, ease oozing from his being. It is a film about process, and timing, and the hazy in-between that accompanies both of them.

Being billed as a “thriller” about “an assassin” is probably the trickiest twist of THE AMERICAN. It’s the opposite of a thriller, and Clooney’s Jack (or, alternately, Edward) is a shadow of an assassin – on the edge of retirement, his skills have skewed to the more rudimentary violence of self-preservation and to advanced weapon making. He does not use his mind or his guns for his chosen profession, he uses them to survive, both in terms of basic physical existence and in bringing in cash to keep his status quo of invisibility. But Jack’s walls are coming down – anyone who has ever seen a spy flick or read a pulp novel knows that when our main man lets someone in a little too close, all bets are off. Jack knows not to “make friends,” but he keeps doing it, even as he knows the dangers – even as we, the audience, witness their consequences within the film’s opening minutes.

Have you ever wondered what spies and assassins do as they await their next assignment? If we were to believe THE AMERICAN, they wile away their days in tiny, empty Italian villages, falling for prostitutes and befriending priests. After that opening burst of shock and violence, Jack decamps for Italy from Sweden, hiding out and working under a weak cover. But even living in what appears to be relative safety and anonymity, he has no edge anymore – Jack jumps when a book tumbles to the ground, hearing it as a gunshot, a shot through the air intent on ripping him from his precarious and vague peace. He’s cracking under the pressure of “one last job,” even as there seems to be a light at the end of Jack’s suffocatingly long tunnel.

THE AMERICAN is almost unsettlingly quiet – but just almost, as it never fully immerses its audience in the tension of its situations. Instead, it teeters on the edge of a lulling boredom, an incipient emptiness that overtakes the film. And while the film itself is beautiful to look at, with unceasingly wide shots of the countryside of Jack’s respite, the rest of the film slowly collapses around itself, never building to its promise. There should be a thread of tension running through every minute of THE AMERICAN, but it never comes to be. Even when Jack finally gets down to business in the film’s barely-there action sequences, there seems to be nothing at stake, even when everything is at stake.

The film’s speaking script is sparse to the point of barely existing – conversations between characters rarely extend beyond three lines per participant, and Clooney goes long stretches without speaking to anyone. All told, lines in THE AMERICAN probably extend to ten paper pages, leaving so much resting on body language and the unspoken. And while so much of that hangs on what Clooney alone can turn in (he is, after all, not just the marquee name, but the only one that will be recognizable to most of its audience), it’s a lesser Clooney performance. It’s not a crowd-pleaser like UP IN THE AIR, or a tour de force like MICHAEL CLAYTON, it’s placeholder work, not necessarily phoned-in, but never even close to being fully realized.

Surely, THE AMERICAN aims to impart bigger thoughts – there’s bits here about the nature of replaceability, the extinction of people and things and thoughts, the terror of letting people in – but so much of it gets buried under heavy-handed and tangled metaphors involving butterflies and brooding looks that just look like sleepiness. Both Clooney and director Anton Corbijn are capable of giving us so much more than a film that, even at its best moments, aims the worst kind of cinematic assassination squarely at its audience – blithely empty boredom.


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