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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

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

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