It doesn’t have to be Halloween for people to wear masks. I’m not talking about the kind of mask you buy at the party store; this mask is the one we forge from our experiences and wear to hide who we really are. Some people wear a mask of promiscuity to hide how lonely and afraid they are. Some wear the mask of a joker to cover up how sad and hurt they’ve been. There are those who wear a mask that is blank in an effort to fade into the background and go unnoticed by those they encounter. That mask is worn by the title character in this week’s movie, “The American.” Unfortunately, there are those who see through it.
While relaxing at a rustic cabin near a frozen lake, Jack (George Clooney) and his girlfriend Ingrid (Irina Bjorklund) decide to take a walk. Seeing footprints in the snow, Jack seeks cover with Ingrid as shots ring out from the bank of the lake. Jack, who has a gun much to Ingrid’s surprise, kills the shooter and tells Ingrid to go back to the cabin and call the police. As she runs away from him, Jack shoots Ingrid in the back, killing her. Jack is an assassin or hit man and people are out to end his career. Quickly traveling to Rome, Italy, Jack phones his contact Pavel (Johan Leysen) who gives Jack a car and tells him to hide out in the small village of Castlevecchio in the countryside. Not liking the feel of his suggested hideout, Jack heads to another mountain town and, along the way, throws out the cell phone Pavel had given him. Jack, who pretends to be a landscape photographer by the name of Edward, meets Father Benedetti (Paolo Bonacelli), the local Catholic priest, who senses something about the visiting American is not right. He offers Jack a chance to confess his sins, but he refuses. Contacting Pavel by pay phone, Jack is told to meet a woman in a nearby outdoor café for his next job. There he meets Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) who wants a specially designed gun for a hit. She wants the gun to have the firing rate of a sub-machine gun and the accuracy of a rifle. Jack agrees to build the gun and the specialized ammunition she requests. When not working on the gun, Jack frequents a local brothel to spend his time with Clara (Violante Placido). Visiting prostitutes appears to be the only pleasure Jack allows himself. Jack notices people who don’t seem to belong in the little village and is concerned the people who tried to kill him earlier have found him again. There’s also the complication that he may be falling in love with Clara and love is a weakness a hit man can’t have.
“The American” is a taut yet subtle thriller that will leave many people bored to death. It is not a film filled with car chases, fist fights, explosions and gun battles; it is a character study of a man who does evil but is not evil himself. He approaches his work like most people approach their jobs; with emotional detachment. Clooney give Jack a very workman-like personality. His emotional range is limited to a narrow band between mildly annoyed and catatonic. Assassins don’t have the luxury of being emotionally involved with their work since their job is to hand out death. Having a family is a liability for them and, as Jack shows early on, being his girlfriend can be dangerous on many different levels.
“The American” is shot in a way that almost makes the camera a character. Many times, Jack is shown from behind as he walks down a street. It feels like we in the audience are stalking him and something bad is going to attack him from behind. I liked this technique because it forces the audience to pay attention to what would normally just be a transitional shot from the car to a building or back. These shots also give the audience time to ponder what has happened and what will happen to Jack in the next few scenes. Since we are given so little information about what Jack does and for whom he does it, the mind races with thoughts of his past and how he came to be who he is. Much of the film is just watching Jack as he works on the gun, as he travels through the small streets of the village, as he looks out the window of his rented apartment wondering who might be among the townspeople on a mission to kill him. It was fascinating to watch this character about whom I knew so little, yet felt like I knew so well. Clooney’s dead-eyed yet dead on portrayal of Jack seems a cinch for another Academy Award nomination and I can see the film being a best picture contender.
That doesn’t mean everything is perfect in the land of “The American.” First, a cinema cliché is put on full display with the impossibly beautiful hooker with a heart of gold. Violante Placido is a stunning beauty who portrays the prostitute that steals the hit man’s heart. While I have no personal experience with call girls, those I see on the news having been arrested on Magnolia Avenue don’t look a thing like Ms. Placido. And yes, I know there’s a difference between streetwalkers and call girls and pros who work in a brothel, but still, the idea of a working girl as beautiful as Ms. Placido is a common Hollywood device and it’s overused. Couldn’t she have played a local woman who wasn’t a prostitute and started a relationship with Jack? Also, it appears Mr. Clooney has a clause in his contract that requires any woman he spends time with on screen must be, at minimum, very attractive. The other women who interact with Clooney’s character in this film are knock-out gorgeous. I suppose it’s good to be King George. On a more serious note, the movie’s ending seemed a little too precious. I won’t give it away, but it feels too romantic, too soapy to be the conclusion of a film that had to that point been so grounded and serious.
“The American” is rated R for violence, sexual content and nudity. For a movie about a hit man, there’s not that much violence in the film. We see a few of shootings, Jack kills a man with his bare hands but little of it is shown, we see a person’s disfigured face after an accident. There is a great deal of female nudity in the film, much of it being Ms. Placido in her scenes with Clooney. There’s one particularly graphic sexual scene. Foul language is scattered.
Many people will hate “The American.” It will be considered too slow and dull for U.S. movie audience tastes with not nearly enough violence and action. I believe the film is a thoughtful examination of a life of violence and the consequences it brings. While it may not be what is sold on the TV commercials, I believe it is a film well worth your time and attention.
“The American” gets four guitars out of five.
A new week brings four new releases to local theatres. Vote for the next film I see and review.
Alpha and Omega--Two wolves embark on the ultimate road trip home after being taken by park rangers and shipped halfway across the country.
Devil--In a dark story from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan, a group of people are trapped in an elevator, and one of them is the devil.
Easy A--After a little white lie about losing her virginity gets out, a clean cut high school girl sees her life paralleling 'The Scarlet Letter.'
The Town--Ben Affleck stars as a professional thief whose love affair with a bank manager takes them down a dangerous and deadly path.
Stan’s Choice--Stan sees and reviews and movie currently in theatres.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.
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