All of which is my roundabout way of saying that The American, starring George Clooney, feels like a remake of a lost French classic. Which means that, despite a hyperactive trailer, this is not a thriller as American audiences have come to undertstand the word. It is a largely silent mood piece, substantially told from a single point of view, in which the inevitability of violence hangs over George Clooney like the inevitability of dancing hangs over Fred and Ginger.
Guess what country he's from.
This mood is established in the first five minutes with a moment which is so genuinely shocking that you just know it will echo throughout the rest of the film. It has to; it’s that much of a “Whoa!” That it doesn’t, except for a brief flashback, is one of the reasons why The American doesn’t live up to its premise. Instead of a Graham Greene entertainment where guilt opens the door to redemption or damnation, you get a one-last-job flick where the female assassin dresses like a Vogue model, the love interest lolls around half-naked while the guy keeps all his clothes on, and the main character totally obeys the Parallax View Law--“In order for the plot to work, nobody who is in a thriller has ever seen a thriller before.”
The movie also goes wrong when Clooney’s hunted and supposedly haunted gunmaker decides to hide out in an Italian town whose winding streets and hidden stairways give him absolutely no idea what’s around the next corner. (This gets an A for tension and an F for logic.) On the plus side, this is the best town in the world to be a wanted man on the run, because it doesn’t have any cops. Which means there’s no one to officially question the only foreigner for miles when another foreigner winds up dead in a shoot-out. No one except the local priest, who (a) preaches about good and evil like all Catholic priests are supposed to do, (b) gets pretty much ignored by Clooney, which is what all good American Catholics do whenever they hear a priest start preaching about good and evil, and (c) gets exposed as a hypocrite, which is what happens to all Catholic priests who start preaching about good and evil to Americans in an American-made movie.
So where does the movie go right? The style, for one--the wordless passages outnumber the scripted segments, which gives it that European feel. There’s a visual motif that’s established in the credit sequence and reappears throughout, with Clooney in the foreground, shadowed but in focus, and the rest of the world blurry and out of focus, like he’s the only real thing in a formless void. (There’s a deliberate visual echo of this at the end--in the credit sequence, Clooney is driving through what looks like a cross between pointillism and impressionism; in the final moments, there’s a shot of him driving through a real world where he’s partially out of focus and his destination is crystal clear.) The only time we don’t see this story from Clooney’s point of view is when he’s threatened--only then does the director cut away to omniscience, to establish the threat and create tension. And the only time you hear music is when Clooney is working on creating a gun. Which is also the only time you ever see his face relax. The rest of the time, he’s either worried about something or scared shitless that he’s going to get killed.
While we’re on the subject of faces (the chief subject of all silent movies, after all), those of the women are much more interesting than their characters. Thekla Reuten, the mysterious client, has a face which, like her name, is the perfect mixture of hard and soft. And the oxymoronically named Violante Placido as the hooker-with-a-heart-etc. is not only the most fresh-faced small-town prostitute in film history, but naggingly familiar. With good reason:
That's right--the woman in this picture?
This woman's daughter.
And this is where you know her from.
One other piece of rightness: in a genre where guys can get hit with twenty pounds of bullets and make bad puns ten minutes later while getting it on with absurdly-named females, it’s refreshing to see a movie where a single bullet actually, y’know, takes something out of you. Like, potentially, your life.
So why does a movie with all this going for it still leave you feeling like there’s something missing? One big reason: because it doesn’t rub Clooney’s face in the collateral damage of his decisions. As a maker of guns, which are then used by other people as murder weapons, he is perfectly correct in saying that everything he has done, he has had good reason to do (as long as you count money and self-preservation as reasons). But perfectly correct is not morally correct. In that sense, there’s a political allegory here which is just as unexamined as Clooney’s moral compass--it’s not just The American, but America, out there selling guns and weapons and then claiming to have clean hands. Thankfully, the movie never actually makes the allegorical dilemma explicit (which is good) even though it does make Clooney’s American look like an ignorant tourist (because really--only an American would be dumb enough to actually go down on a small-town Italian prostitute). But unfortunately, the movie never actually makes the personal dilemma explicit either.
Bottom line: as the third of Clooney’s recent movies about men trapped in their jobs (after Michael Clayton and Up In The Air), The American feels like it could have been the best of the three, if only it had followed through on those first five shocking minutes by planting itself firmly in the minefield between action and intent, between guilt and self-justification. One of the first things you hear in The Wild Bunch is somebody saying “I don't care what you meant to do, it's what you did I don’t like,” and everything that happens for the entire rest of that Western (including the flashbacks) is a comment on those 15 words. All I can say is, if The American had been that focused, then it would have a solid film in its own right, instead of a flawed, if entertaining, remake of an imaginary classic.