Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The American

The American is a surprising work, in that it feels contemporary, while at the same time like a tribute to the film noir doomed loner. Clooney is the American of the title, and his character, Jack is established very early as a cold blooded and efficient killer.

Jack and a lover, Ingrid (Irina Bj√∂rklund) take a break from making love in a secluded cabin and decide to take a walk through the snow. Their walk is interrupted by gunfire, which is apparently nothing new to Jack as he is able to get Ingrid to cover and figure out the shooter's location accurately enough to step out of cover and return fire killing him instantly. Ingrid is horrified, having no idea that Jack was a man involved in any sort of gun play. He understands her fear and tells her to go to the cabin and call the police, but shoots her in the head when she turns around, presumably to keep his own life secret.

He surprises a second assassin, killing him with little effort. He abandons the cabin and heads to Rome to meet with an associate/employer named Pavel (Johan Leysen) Pavel is critical of Jack. He asks about the woman, noting from the newspapers that there were three dead and Jack only mentioned two assassins. Jack tells Pavel that she was "a friend" Which prompts Pavel to remind him that he used to know better than to have friends. He also tells Pavel that Ingrid wasn't involved in setting him up and he'd like to know how they found him. Pavel tells him that answers will take a while, but he can't stay in Rome, as people are looking for him. Pavel gives him a cell phone, and a car and a location that should be safe. Jack heads out but suspiciously throws the cell phone out the car window. He also chooses not to stay in the town that Pavel picked driving a little further, but returning to the town to use the pay phone.

He poses as a photographer and quickly makes friends with a local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli).  Benedetto knows that Jack, who introduces himself as Edward, is not what he claims to be,  observing that he claims to be taking pictures for an atlas, but knows nothing of the local history. He also notices that Jack claims to be "no good with machines"  yet fixes a problem with Benedetto's vehicle with amazing speed. The priest is no stranger to Criminals however, and he himself, has a son who is involved in illicit activities of some variety.  Jack calls Pavel who informs him that he has a job set up for him, which won't require him to kill anyone, only to build a weapon. Jack meets with the client, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) who explains that she needs a weapon with the accuracy of a rifle, the firing capacity of a sub machine gun, as well as a silencer, and maximum portability. Jack tells her that he can't "silence" it, but he can mask the noise so no one can tell where it comes from. She finds this agreeable and leaves him to start work, arranging to meet soon to test it.

Jack begins working on the weapon, also spending time with Father Benedetto and a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido.) Visiting the brothel one night when she's out he refuses the other girls, Clara apparently retaining his interest. Benedetto works at getting Jack to confess to him, but Jack has no interest, claiming God is not very interested in him. Jack also becomes aware that the Swedes have found him. He realizes a man is following him and removes his shoes to sneak up behind the assassin and kill him. However, before he can fire, a motor scooter comes between them and backfires, alerting the would be killer, who fires but kills the driver rather than Jack. Jack takes the abandoned motor scooter, chases the man down and kills him. Jack has a session with Clara, and informs her that she "doesn't have to act" as he is paying to be pleasured not to pleasure her. He tips generously and she remarks that it must be more than he gives the other girls. Jack admits that he is seeing her exclusively.  Noticing a butterfly tattoo on his back she calls him "Mr. Butterfly."

He mentions the assassination attempt to Pavel as he's the only one who knows Jack's location. Pavel tells Jack they found him because he's lost his edge. Jack arranges another meeting with Mathilde as the weapon is ready to fire. He brings her to a remote lakeside location, where they test the weapon. She asks for a few minor adjustments. He tells her to be careful as a butterfly is nearby, remarking that they're "endangered."

Clara spots him having coffee in a cafe as she walks past and taps on the window before  coming in to see him. Clara toys with him giving him the opportunity to reveal that he knows her as a prostitute, but he chooses to be tactful in front of her friend. Under this pretense they set up an actual date at a restaurant. Clara is surprised that he shows up but he seems happy to be there. In bed later, Jack discovers a gun in her purse, although he returns it and acts as if he doesn't know about it. 

He arranges a picnic with Clara at the same secluded spot where he and Mathilde tested the weapon. He is clearly on edge but she is enjoying herself, taking a swim and then joining him on the ground for their picnic. When she moves to get something from her bag, Jack assumes she means to kill him and holds a gun on her from inside the picnic basket. Jack realizes she isn't pulling a gun in time, but he then questions her about it anyway. She explains that there have been many prostitute murders in the area and it's purely for self defense.

He arranges a last meeting with Mathilde in a diner, and informs Pavel that this will be his last job, to which Pavel agrees. His suspicion increases when the place clears out and Mathilde nervously excuses herself to use the bathroom, staying there a long time. They tensely make their way to the parking lot, again alone until a tour bus pulls up sending a flood of people walking past. Mathilde tells him to use his payment to enjoy his retirement. Calling him "Mr. Butterfly" perhaps in reference to the lakeside incident. Soon after Mathilde calls Pavel and informs him that there was no opportunity to kill Jack. He isn't pleased and tells her to make it happen. She says she's following him and will take care of it.

In town, Jack meets Clara at a religious procession in the street and he asks her if she would leave with him. She agrees, but we see Mathilde on a rooftop watching them through the scope on the weapon that Jack built with the back of his head in the cross hairs. We hear a blast and realize that the weapon has misfired seriously injuring Mathilde. He gives Clara his payment for the weapon and tells her to meet him at the lake as he takes off after Mathilde. He finds her dying in the street, and asks who she works for. She answers "Same as you." Father Benedetto witnesses him questioning her, and he says he's sorry, the leaves. Jack then discovers that Pavel is also in town, and confronting him. shoots Pavel dead.

He gets in the car and we realize that he has also been shot and is bleeding pretty badly. He struggles to keep control of the car and barely manages to reach the lake where Clara is waiting and happy to see him. He crashes into a tree and we see a butterfly flying away.


The American is a wonderfully thoughtful film which fits in nicely with Classic Noirs like Le Samourai, Blast of Silence and This Gun for Hire, among others. If you've seen those films, it's not likely to surprise you, but neither I think does it intend to. Being a big fan of the genre, I found this film to be a revelation. I can't imagine that Corbijn himself is not a fan, considering the care he took in contributing his vision to the tradition. "The American" not only acknowledges those that went before but revels in that knowledge.

We know the story of the hit man about to retire, but that doesn't take away from it's effect. Clooney is terrific as the stoic and cold man of very few words. He's very set in his ways. When questioned by Father Benedetto, about why he does what he does (not realizing what he really does) Jack answers "I do what I'm good at." He lives by a system and judging from Pavel's comments, the system most definitely doesn't include "friends" Jack being the only American in a small Italian town is no accident, a perfect illustration of his complete alienation. He is a contradiction, a man who can shoot his girlfriend without hesitation, and on then become immediately faithful to one prostitute. He has no appreciation for God, but holds butterflies almost sacred.

Most of his suspicions are only revealed through facial expressions, giving the tension an added weight. Jack and Mathilde practically converse through expression, both seeming to know what has to happen but neither willing to reveal their knowledge fully, or too early. They have an understanding which is not concealed well by social niceties, but they nonetheless observe the niceties, as they are both creatures of habit. You might question the logic of paying a man to build the gun that you kill him with  when you could certainly just buy one somewhere else that would do the job, but that's more a matter of mood here, than logic. We are dealing with associates that have deep connections. It's clear that Pavel and Jack worked very closely together and that Pavel is contemptuous of Jack, which he doesn't bother concealing. We're not told what it was that went bad between them, or what caused the Swedes to pursue Jack. And again, the not knowing ratchets the tension, whatever it was it certainly has them determined, both the Swedes and Pavel.

Corbijn pays attention to everything, the small touches, such as the butterflies present at the lake are important, as is their absence when Jack plans to kill Clara. Both significant women call him Mr. Butterfly although for different reasons, and with different tones. Jack identifies with the butterfly which may tell us something about where he comes from or possibly where he plans to go. Both Clara and Mathilde help to change him in a way, but this is not a choice of paths as he must accept both; Mathilde's path, which forces him to sabotage his own work to preserve his own life, and Clara's path, which asks him to trust someone and try to form new habits. Corbijn sustains a contemplative tone that elevates this from an action film to a beautiful reflection on loneliness, discipline and human nature.

Jack is perpetually disconnected from everyone, although he notices everything around him, identifying Benedetto's son by their similar eyes and the fact that each has a picture of both of them together.
Benedetto points out the problem he has with Jack being a photographer, saying that he is "a craftsman, not an artist." For this character the assessment makes a lot of sense. When he needed to kill his lover, he saw her as a part of a problem, rather than an object of beauty. He shows he has made a change when he takes Clara to the lake and hesitates to kill her. This, compared to his killing of Ingrid, who we hear he wasn't suspicious of at all.

But Jack wants to be an artist, as indicated by his choice of cover professions. His lack of a reasonable back story for his photography, for a man as smart as he is, suggests that he merely picked the first thing that came to mind, fascinated with the idea of the profession rather than what the job really is. His failure of imagination confirms him as a technician. We wonder if his demanding that Clara not act for him, is a sign of his search for some truth, more compatible with an aspiring artist. This can also be seen in his sabotaging of his own work, the weapon, as many hold that art is as much imperfection as perfection, while the implication (based on the impossible demands Mathilde gives him) is that he has a history of making flawless weapons.

Jack doesn't know where he is in his life, only that he's tired of what he's doing. But as good as he is, he's just a man. Whether he sticks with his old trade or not, we know that his days are numbered, although he does achieve a kind of triumph by choosing to change, although he doesn't have the time to see how the change will fit. Pavel at least is forced to reevaluate his opinion that Jack has "lost his edge." as he dies in the same set of habits he lived in.

"The American" is a wonderful work of tension and mood. Corbijn and Clooney work together remarkably well, presenting a man who is always out of place, but rarely out of options. It's a fantastic examination of consequences and the cost of real change. When Jack frees himself from Pavel, he cuts the strings on his own strictly disciplined life and becomes, at least for a brief spell, the ultimate American symbol of freedom, a man who's going to run away with his girlfriend and start over, a dream which here is sadly as elusive as it is in real life.


Anonymous said...

Am dying to see this!!!! the art direction seems so cool, and Clooney as a hired hitman seems very interesting!

INDBrent said...

Hi Moito,

If you appreciate art direction, you'll love it. Corbijn's photographer/video background really comes through here. It's a real visual treat, if you like the style.