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Ravings Of A Film Fanatic: The American

Words by Nicky Dean

It’s tough being George Clooney – beloved by women the world over, multi-million-dollar paycheques, string of model and actress girlfriends – so it’s easy to understand all the soul-searching roles lately. Solaris, The Good German, Michael Clayton, Ocean’s Thirteen, Up In The Air: all featuring characters desperately trying to understand their place in the world. Not that he doesn’t do a great job, of course. I’m a huge fan of Gorgeous George, Batman & Robin notwithstanding. However, with his latest role, it seems the whole angst thing may finally be becoming rather unstuck.

The American is the second film from Anton Corbijn, following Ian Curtis biopic Control three years earlier. Clooney plays the enigmatic Jack, a hitman and armourer who goes into hiding after a botched job in Sweden. Arriving in Italy, he is tasked with building one final weapon before retiring. As he does so, he befriends the local priest, gets a little too friendly with the local prostitute, and fails to make friends with the not-so-local heavies on his trail.

Opening in a cosy log cabin amid a snowy Swedish forest, watching our solemn protagonist sipping whiskey, the obligatory naked beauty draped around him, we could be forgiven for thinking we’d stumbled into classic spy-movie territory, especially once the villains turn up to ruin the party. However, Corbijn swiftly dispels any such notion, having Clooney quickly and clinically dispatch his would-be assassins before shooting the girl in the back. James Bond this ain’t.

From there, Corbijn sets about evoking angst-ridden one-man-against-the-world seventies thrillers, deliberately distancing himself from contemporary action fare: Clooney arrives in Italy by train rather than plane, he drives run-down economy cars, and he has a penchant for payphones over mobiles.

The film is beautiful to look at, even when Clooney or Violante Placido (as Clara, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold) aren’t naked. Which they are. A lot. Though it’s presumably not hard to make Abruzzo look good, there’s still something deeply moving about the way cinematographer Martin Ruhe captures the mountain landscape and its tiny cobbled villages in all their glory, and virtually every frame is gorgeous.

However, the endless metaphors forced upon us are far less impressive. Things start innocuously enough, with Georgie Boy driving through a long dark tunnel, his head framing one side of the picture, the white light of the tunnel’s end far off on the other (ooh, I wonder what that might symbolise?). From there, things just escalate. Scenes featuring guns are always followed by sex scenes. The suspicious village priest is often tending lambs, right before they’re put into stew. Jack, a man trapped by his profession, is obsessed with butterflies. It’s all so heavy-handed that Corbijn may as well have used subtitles to explain the characters’ predicaments. It also leaves little doubt about how things might end.

Still, there are some great scenes, notably those with Thekla Reuten (as Clooney’s final customer), which just ooze tension – sexual and otherwise – and a gripping chase sequence involving a Vespa and a Punto. Yet the overall pace was glacial, leaving me feeling rather cold and detached. This is of course intentional, mirroring Clooney’s deliberate isolation and unwillingness – or even inability – to enjoy the scenery or to connect with those around him.

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Supposedly he’s also beginning to question his situation, yet these interesting cracks in the façade never feel fleshed out. Clooney’s struggle – arguably the crux of the film – is never clear. He shows no remorse about his profession, seeming most at ease when working, and he’s not trying to uncover what went wrong in Sweden or clear his name, so why does he want out of the business? As for the elfin Clara, it’s easy to see why you’d fall for her, but he never comes across as a man in need of rescuing, waiting for the right woman to come along and fix him. Instead of unravelling these mysteries, we watch impassively as he works, talks to the priest and Clara, acts nervous around everyone else, and drains all of the sexiness from what should have been a seriously sexy sex scene.

In the end, too many questions felt unanswered to make this a wholly satisfying experience. So many elements of the film are wonderful yet somehow they fail to add up to a glorious whole. I could have ignored the overcooked symbolism, but so much of it – together with some of the subplots – just went nowhere. I really wanted The American to work, and maybe I’ll feel differently second time around, but sadly I think George may have to think more carefully before he goes soul-searching again.

Image Source: Slam X Hype

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