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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The American (review)

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves

I didn’t think it was possible. I was certain that there was no movie that I could not endure if it meant I could gaze at George Clooney for two hours.

I was wrong. I enjoy being wrong. But I would have preferred to enjoy The American. It was tough even to ease into some serious fantasizing about Clooney’s morose, laconic hitman, because he’s so, you know, morose, and spends much of the movie with his back nervously to us, as if, perhaps, we were sharing the perspective of the other hitmen who are out to get him. It’s all good for Clooney and his Art, I suppose, to wallow so sleekly, so handsomely, so tersely in his regrets or whatever the hell is bothering him. (A life of coldblooded murder tends to be bad for the soul? Who knew?) And I understand suffering for one’s Art. I just don’t think the rest of us should have to suffer for his Art.
Make no mistake: This is not George Clooney Goes Jason Bourne. It’s not Ocean’s Fourteen. This is an anti-action, Hollywood-negating art film about death and high-powered weapons and the men who make death via high-powered weapons a calling, only to later discover that it’s not work that makes for a comfortable retirement… or, indeed, for any retirement at all. Sure, a professional assassin might get to enjoy an idyllic Swedish winterlude with a hot naked chick once in a while, but that can’t end well, not when it comes right at the beginning of the film. Perhaps when a weary hitman hightails it to rural mountain Italy to hide out in the aftermath, he might encounter an elderly priest (Paolo Bonacelli: Mission: Impossible III) with whom he can understatedly compare and contrast himself — hey, we’re all sinners, doncha know, in our own ways — and maybe even a gorgeous prostitute (Violante Placido) with a heart of gold to warm his bed. If a weary hitman is very lucky, she’ll be as weary as him, and will actually like the fact that he tells her he’s not interested in giving pleasure, only taking it. Until, of course, she falls in love with him precisely because he’s such a bitter, soulless bastard…

Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong about an anti-action, Hollywood-negating art film about death and high-powered weapons. But this one… It’s all based on a novel by Martin Booth called A Very Private Gentleman [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], and though I haven’t read it, I can’t help but wonder if maybe there are some things so private that are better left to literature. Not things that shouldn’t be depicted on film, but things that can’t be depicted on film. Such as the internal meanderings of a man who doesn’t talk much and reveals no emotion except suspicion. Presumably screenwriter Rowan Joffe (28 Weeks Later, Last Resort) knows what’s supposed to be going through his protagonist’s head, and presumably Clooney (Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Men Who Stare at Goats) does too. I wish they’d shared it with us. Unless the point is that the hitman is an emotionless automaton. But that’s not terribly introspective, either.

Bored? I can’t say I was bored by The American: who doesn’t enjoy artistically chilly visual sterility once in a while, or characters who don’t talk to one another because, honestly, what is there to say, life is so meaningless? (Director Anton Corbijn’s previous film, Control, was about a rock star who commits suicide. This is downright cheery in comparison.) I had one extended moment toward the end of the film — as the tension, such as it is, is ramping up and we’re not just sure what emotionally calm and physically self-possessed not-crazy thing Clooney might do as a result — when I had to fight to reign in snickers, because the earnest strains of Herman Gronemeyer’s score sounded exactly like that bit from Danny Elfman’s Nightmare Before Christmas song in which everyone is singing, “Something’s up with Jack / Something’s up with Jack…” (Clooney’s character? Jack. Or Edward, sometimes. But definitely sometimes Jack.)

Instead of bored, I was a little bit infuriated, perhaps — in a smooth, polished, European sort of way, in which I really can’t be bothered to get too worked up about it. Que sera sera, whatever will be bleak and nihilistic will be.


Watch The American online using LOVEFiLM‘s streaming service.


MPAA: rated R for violence, sexual content and nudity

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • bronxbee

    also the only film i’ve seen in which italy did not look like an entracing, charming, light filled place.

  • JoshDM

    Yeah, you went in preferring to see a good movie, unlike when you went into Scott Pilgrim and were all pre-biast. The 700 posters of the Scott Pilgrim comment thread can’t be wrong.

    Well, at least this gets one movie crossed off of Friday’s list of potentials.

  • bronxbee

    The 700 posters of the Scott Pilgrim comment thread can’t be wrong.

    of course they can!

  • Bill

    @JoshDM – you must have missed the part where she said “This is an anti-action, Hollywood-negating art film about death and high-powered weapons…” how do you *not* see this movie? :)

  • Kevin

    You liked TAKERS but not this, really?

  • scott

    bronxbee wrote
    “also the only film I’ve seen in which Italy did not look like an entrancing, charming, light filled place place.”

    Check out Don’t Look Now by Nicolas Roeg with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. He makes Venice look like the creepiest, most unsettling, most foreboding place around.

    As for The American the trailer reminded me a lot of the old George C. Scott film The Last Run and after reading maryann’s review it seems one of those times where they just don’t make em like they used to.

  • MaryAnn

    You liked TAKERS but not this, really?

    Nope, just kidding. I’ll post my real reviews — trashing TAKERS and praising THE AMERICAN — shortly.

  • bronxbee

    @scott… you know, i remember seeing that movie many, many…. many… years ago, when i was a teenager. i don’t think i ever really associated Venice of my dreams with the creepy watery place they were being chased by that red coated character. well, at least now that i’m warned, i won’t watch it again. (i yearn to go to venice and other parts of italy)

  • Lisa

    ^I’d be a narcissist too, if I looked like George. I always think these types of movies are male wish fufilment. I’m so mean and moody – beautiful, well adjusted prostitutes can’t resist me.

  • texphile

    Sigh…. I so wanted this movie to be a winner. Better luck next time Mr. C.

  • JoshDM (Tue Aug 31 10, 5:15PM):

    Yeah, you went in preferring to see a good movie, unlike when you went into Scott Pilgrim and were all pre-biast. The 700 posters of the Scott Pilgrim comment thread can’t be wrong.

    Biased.

    This is disappointing. I actually stole one of those mini American movie posters that was stuck to the mirror in the movie theater bathroom and have been staring at it every day while I get ready in the morning. I’ll probably have to go see it anyway, but I’m a little trepedatious going in. Maybe that’ll improve things a little?

    And to anyone who is suspicious of MaryAnn’s reviews, just compare and contrast this one to the Machete review. It’s obvious she’s very objective, despite the few times we might disagree with her.

  • Hank Graham

    I love it!

    You post this review saying to skip it, and Ebert goes four stars for it.

    For a long time now, you and Ebert have been doing a dialog in my head.

    When the two of you agree, you point out different things in the same movie. And when you disagree, like this time, there’s this assumptive air of, “What are you, nuts?” that has made you, to me, the true successor to Siskel. Not that dandified doofus Ebert-lite who got the job.

  • bronxbee

    i told maryann when we were leaving the theatre that this was going to be one of those movies that would defintely be one that critics either loved or hated. there’s very little in the line of “meh” reviews…

  • JEREMY

    To me, Jack was a lot like Clint Eastwood’s character in UNFORGIVEN. A man who reached a point where he’s reevaluating the life he once led,and found it not entirely satisfying.

  • Susan

    Until, of course, she falls in love with him precisely because he’s such a bitter, soulless bastard…

    Noooooooo! Not the old “heart of gold” whore! How could you, George? I’m disappointed, but glad I was warned.

  • MaryAnn

    To me, Jack was a lot like Clint Eastwood’s character in UNFORGIVEN. A man who reached a point where he’s reevaluating the life he once led,and found it not entirely satisfying.

    Yes, that’s absolutely true. But *Unforgiven* is a far more involving film than this one is.

  • I had a completely different take on this, MaryAnn. I found the unspoken thoughts and emotions fascinating — and I was able to build, based on my knowledge of hitman / spy films and stories, what I perceived to be a credible version of the internal monologue. And I thought Clooney expressed it extremely well through his eyes and slight mannerisms.

    *SPOILERS*

    *I’M NOT KIDDING, SPOILERS BELOW*

    I agree that suspicion informed every one of Jack’s actions in this story — and from that I was able to glean two very crucial emotional beats from what was happening on screen. First, despite his later assertion that “she had nothing to do with it” he killed the woman in the snow because he knew she had to have tipped the Swedes off… to him it was the only possible explanation. Whether he was right or not, it’s hard to say. But I absolutely loved the way he never spoke the thought out loud, and it’s never revealed through any sort of dialogue except a flat denial of her involvement.

    Second: Jack was lying to Clara about not wanting to give pleasure, evidenced by the fact that he was all about pleasuring her in what has to be one of the hottest (oral) sex scenes in film history.

    And I don’t buy the “hooker with a heart of gold” explanation either. Clara was using “Edward” just as much as he was using her, evidenced by the very thing that made him suspicious of her at the river. Despite his demeanor (aloof, mistrustful, short-tempered) she continued to act as if she was just an innocent girl in love with a man. He rebuffed her, and she continued to pursue, no fewer than three times. This culminates in the argument in the car and she reveals that what she really wants is a way out of her situation. Her behavior very nearly got her killed, which I found wonderfully satisfying (not that she should be killed, but that it was very possible she might be killed based on a credible interpretation of her actions).

    So, in behaving as though she would love him no matter how he behaved, she was acting just like someone would act who was being forced (or paid) to betray or kill him.

    The ending was a little predictable; probably would’ve been better if they hadn’t shown her stalking him and setting up for the shot, but I liked the message: everybody has to pay for their past, even if the opposite has been said by much better films (No Country for Old Men, for example).

    I also disagree with the commenter who said the film made Italy not look like a nice place to visit; I thought it was beautifully shot, and refreshingly “earthy” with the dirt and grime and reality of the setting.

  • bigcitylawlor

    I’m with you, Newbs. I’m glad I ignored your advice on this one, Maryann. I’m getting good at telling when I should (even though I am an avid reader). I loved this movie.

    Newbs, in response to your take… **SPOILER WARNING*

    I didn’t think the woman in the snow tipped off the Sweedes by anything she did, but when a hitman makes friends, he loses “his edge”, and it makes it easier for people to find him.

  • **SPOILERS**

    That’s an interesting take on it, bigcity… and honestly after reading Outlaw Vern’s thoughts on it I’m not so sure my interpretation is the best one:

    It’s kind of a rash decision because he must think she set him up, at least in that moment, but I think he immediately changes his mind. Fellas, let this be a lesson to you. Think these things through before taking drastic action.

    source: http://outlawvern.com/2010/09/07/the-american/

    And I think there’s definitely something to what you’re saying as well… I like the idea that he was upset about losing his edge, but then immediately regretted it, and so what he’s doing with Clara is kind of repeating history.

    Of course, I’m not sure whether this makes the ending better or worse, and I certainly don’t know how it makes me feel about the character of Jack. Probably worse! :)

  • Voltaire

    You know, it’s funny. When I saw how this movie ended, I immediately thought “I bet MaryAnn hated this movie.” Sure enough. I thought it was a pretty good movie, but then I’m a nihilist.

  • bronxbee

    yes, but the ending was so… boringly predictable. even nihilism has its cliches.

  • Voltaire

    Well, I think pretty much no matter how it ended, someone could accuse it of being boringly predictable. Is anything more boringly predictable than “He gets the girl and they live happily ever after?” Not that that’s the only other possible ending, but just for example, I think the movie would be getting more good reviews if it had ended that way. So I don’t think it’s necessarily a question of predictability. It’s a question of satisfaction. I’ve noticed that movies that end like this one does tend to be very unsatisfying to MaryAnn (and a lot of other people). Whereas they don’t bother me much. That’s all.

  • Actually, Voltaire, I can think of one ending that would’ve shocked the shit out of me

    **SPOILERS**

    **YEAH REALLY**

    What if Jack had been the one who got shot in the head in that final confrontation between him and his boss? I’m pretty sure that would’ve been unpredictable, and ballsy as fuck too. :D

    Can’t say it would’ve been better, but since the end result is the same, maybe I’d have liked it even more if the final shot of the film was Clara standing alone by the river there, and he never shows and you know she’s never going to find out why. Been done before, I know, but I would’ve been blown away I think… maybe?

  • Voltaire

    I could get on board with that ending, MaryAnn. I’m not convinced it would have made you like the movie any more, though. :)

  • Voltaire

    Bah. You aren’t MaryAnn. Well, my comment still stands.

  • MaryAnn

    You know, it’s funny. When I saw how this movie ended, I immediately thought “I bet MaryAnn hated this movie.” Sure enough. I thought it was a pretty good movie, but then I’m a nihilist.

    You think I only like movies with traditional happy endings? That’s not true. How this movie ends has nothing to do with why I don’t like it. It’s how it gets to that ending that fails to engage me.

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