Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The American

I think George Clooney is trying to tell us something. In the last two films of his that I've seen, Up in the Air (2009) and The American (2010), he plays middle aged men who suddenly discover how lonely they are and make desperate efforts to change their lives. Both films are variations on what Vernon Young trenchantly called "the saddest subject there is: illumination glimpsed too late."

Based on the 1990 novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth, The American follows a contract killer (Clooney) who must go into hiding when he realizes that someone is out to kill him. One of the reasons is his - unsuccessful - attempt to retire. He's had enough of killing for cash and wants a quite, normal life like everyone else. The plot can be traced at least as far back as Henry King's 1950 Western The Gunfighter in which Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) tries to escape from his reputation as the fastest draw in the West, but no one will let him. Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï (1967) broadened the scope of "hit man angst" theme, as Alain Delon stylishly proceeded from one unfulfilling murder to another. The Patrick McGoohan movie The Hard Way (1979) had the same tone of ennui. And the theme turns up again in the comedy Analyze This and the hit HBO series The Sopranos, with gangsters seeking psychoanalytic help. A recent example of the genre, In Bruges (2008), is about two hapless Irish assassins (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) who find themselves stuck in a jewel-like Belgian city waiting for instructions from their boss.

In the same vein, The American is a slow, quiet film with very little real action. Clooney chooses the Italian town of Castel del Monte in the Abruzzo in which to "lay low" (the jargon has entered everyday speech). But there are certain things that we have come to expect from a suspense thriller - like suspense and thrills - in which The American is conspicuously lacking.

I happen to enjoy this kind of movie as long as it isn't too pretentious. One of my favorites is Stephen Frears' The Hit (1984), with John Hurt and Terence Stamp. Jim Jarmusch has set the bar with two of the stupidest examples of the genre, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and The Limits of Control (2009).

Anton Corbijn, the director of The American, is a successful photographer and director of music videos. I saw some of the videos he made for U2 twenty years ago that were hard to evaluate since the music he was "conceptualizing" was, er, unimpressive. In The American we shift from set up to set up with little sense of movement except perhaps laterally. Longueurs abound (it is a film for which the word "longueur" was invented) that, while capturing Clooney's boredom, result in our boredom as well.

Castel del Monte is certainly picturesque (see below). So was Aquila before the earthquake. One gets the feeling that nothing short of an earthquake could stir Castel del Monte. Corbijn was clearly relying on Clooney's likeability. But he could have been made lovable if only he'd been given something to do other than pull-ups. His tattoos tell us more about him than his actions or speeches. Clooney's virility (at 48) is validated by the undressing of a few ell-chosen young women. And his heart-throb image is given a boost by the insertion of a romance with Violante Placido (what a name!).

The movie did teach me the difference between a suppressor and a silencer. (A suppressor disperses the sound of the gunshot so no one can tell from which direction it came.) I'll remember that the next time I have to assassinate someone. You never know.

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