Sunday, September 5, 2010

Mystery Man: THE AMERICAN

George Clooney is often unfairly accused of coasting on his twinkly-eyed Cary Grant charm. That’s because even when he plays characters disaffected with their lifestyle or disconnected from human interactions, like in Syriana, Michael Clayton, and last year’s Up in the Air, his naturally stylish sparkle shines through. Looks can be deceiving, as they say. Though his characters may not always have things figured out, they can put up a good front, a distraction from the hollow aspects of their personalities.

In The American, Clooney takes this darker persona and pushes it into darker, subtler areas. Here he is less Cary Grant and more Alain Delon. As a graying professional assassin, Clooney is slim and weathered, with his expressive eyes taking on haunted qualities. Slipping into the role with startling ease, he finds great power in stillness and in economy of gestures. This is a character that is developed and changed so subtly and simply that a cursory glance could too-easily lead a person to mistake this quiet film’s contemplative nature for lack of interiority.

The film’s icy moodiness and chilled atmosphere is established in the opening Sweden-set moments that find sudden violence shattering the tranquility of an undisturbed snow-covered field. A mission has gone wrong, ending badly and deadly. The rest of the film follows Clooney to Italy where he hides in a small village as he prepares for his next job. As he sips coffee in small cafes, tinkers with metallic objects that will add up into deadly machinery, and moves deliberately through cobblestone streets, he comes into contact with three figures of shifting importance to the plot.

There’s a jovial local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who takes an interest in this mysterious solitary foreigner and pleasantly offers conversation. There’s a prostitute (Violante Placido) from a nearby brothel who finds herself drawn to find the true man behind this secretive loner, her newest client. And there’s the eerily composed businesswoman (Thekla Reuten) who quickly and crisply delivers the specifications for a firearm that she will need from him in order to complete some unknown task of violence that he only wants to eventually discover from the newspapers. These three characters serve to both illuminate and reflect the nature of the inscrutable presence that is Clooney’s slick, mostly silent, and deadly cautious character. Otherwise, we would only have the carefully composed long shots of this single figure, or perhaps his vehicle, moving purposefully across a gorgeous, dominating landscape.

Though nominally a thriller, director Anton Corbijn is not too interested in fulfilling the genre’s requirements. His first feature, after work on music videos and still photography, was the 2007 Ian Curtis biopic Control, an austere, charily unfolding and somewhat distancing visual work that was nonetheless mostly successful in its goals. To The American, Corbijn brings a similar sense of a story sparsely sketched and coolly told. This is to the film’s ultimate benefit. On a plot level, the film’s script by Rowan Joffe is fairly routine spy stuff, falling back on clichés about heart-of-gold hookers and shady spy-like double-crossings, which are in turn hampered by some easy symbolism and on-the-nose dialogue. On a filmmaking and storytelling level, however, the film crackles with an impenetrable mystique that coats the cliché in a slick layer of cool, distinctly European atmospherics and a beautifully sustained mood of melancholy suspense.

All of Corbijn’s impeccable visual skill rests on the capable shoulders of Clooney, who ends up delivering one of his best performances, and the nicely nuanced work of the small supporting cast. This is a small, stylish, moody film that deserves to find an audience that is willing to be rewarded for patience and tolerance in watching such a smartly visual film quietly and deliberately unfold.

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