The American

Director    Anton Corbijn
Starring    George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, Irina Bj÷rklund, Lars Hjelm
Release    1 SEP (US) 26 NOV (UK)    Certificate 15
3 stars


22nd November 2010

Imagine The International, In Bruges and A Single Man were all ushered haphazardly into an experimental teleportation device. Following a few flashes of light and screams of terror, a single unearthly being shuffles out of the mist-drenched doorway - ungodly appendages perambulating wildly - combining the respective qualities of each of its components and begging Geena Davis for death. This strange beast of Eldritch lore is The American, George Clooney's latest slow-burning thriller whose soulful charm affects but lapses ultimately into - admittedly engrossing - self-indulgence.

The ultra-lean, low-fat, cholesterol-free plot sees Clooney's contract killer flee to Italy after a snowbound run-in with some gun-toting Nordic thugs. There - in between shady late-night cafÚ visits, hanging out with the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and copulating with cheerful prossies - he prepares for his latest assignment with all the expected glumness of a man approaching that "one last job."

Yes, there is something paradoxically both unpredictable and inevitable about The American. On the one hand, the film seems bound inescapably to a foregone confusion which one can easily ascertain from the above synopsis. Clooney's character - whose name we never conclusively discover - is predictably enigmatic, as befitting all self-hating mercenaries. Spending the majority of his solitary Mediterranean jaunt sadly shuffling around cobbled alleys and staring meaningfully into middle-distance, it's all too apt that he quickly falls for Violante Placido's kindly hooker.

Though proceedings always interest, they sink too often into a deluge of melodramatic tropes, and come the film's overwrought ending one can practically feel - and simultaneously resent - director Anton Corbijn cynically manipulating one's heartstrings like some demented puppet-master.

[gallery]Nonetheless, Clooney delivers an undeniably engaging performance as the titular gun-for-hire; spending the majority of the film in sullen silence, his wide puppy-dog eyes, staring wistfully from under his heavy brow, emote more than words ever could, even if one occasionally suspects that shots of him gallivanting around the Italian countryside serve more as holiday snaps for Gorgeous George than purposefully-shot scenes for a movie. The fact that he makes an intensely unpredictable, impenetrable cipher of a character - who would just as soon pop a cap in one's ass than share a glass of port with you - is a testament to his lofty acting chops.

The supporting cast is also excellent. Looking oddly like a combination of Rodney Dangerfield and Labour PM Harold Wilson, Bonacelli's paternal padre is enjoyable if peripheral, whilst Thekla Reuten is similarly good as a fashionista assassinette. However, it is Placido's sympathetic portrayal of Clooney's love interest that lingers, effortlessly communicating charm, intelligence and mystery even though, in hindsight, it may help that a large portion of her performance is delivered in the buff.

This is a film, though, whose charm lies not only in its naturalistic performances but also its stunning visuals. Martin Ruhe's outstanding cinematography and Corbijn's relaxed direction allow the audience the opportunity to take in their continental surroundings, whether it be the labyrinthine network of Vespa-traversed lanes of Castel del Monte or the sun-soaked countryside where the characters seem so fond of holding ad hoc picnics/target practice. The result is an almost hypnotically immersive experience which stays with the viewer long after the credits roll.

However, some may (perhaps justifiably) find its incessant brooding self-indulgent; like a sulky teen following a breakup, The American spends an inordinate amount of its running time spent in silent, inaccessible contemplation to a sometimes infuriatingly glacial pace. The odd unexpected jolt of brutal, visceral action may spice up proceedings, however this is predominantly a mood piece more interested in mounting atmosphere than delivering on it, leading ultimately to a largely predictable denouement.

But, despite the odd nagging sensation that the film thinks itself smarter than it actually is, the film consistently engrosses, managing a largely dialogue-free narrative with impressive assurance and succeeding in making its cold-blooded protagonist not only watchable, but also surprisingly personable.

Like a good Italian meal, then, The American is rich in flavour and generously-portioned, albeit ever so slightly overcooked.

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