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September 12, 2010


Movie Review – The American (2010)


George Clooney plays a hired killer with no past and an uncertain future in The American. The movie is well-shot and Clooney’s performance hits the target, but the script misses the mark.

All punning aside, The American is a shallow and disappointing drama.

It is the tale of an assassin, American by nationality, pursued by Swedish killers and hiding out in a small village in Italy. His mysterious handler, who speaks in cryptic phrases and may also want him dead, has arranged a job for the assassin, who is also a craftsman. He is making a special rifle for a killing someone else will carry out. The client is a beautiful, chameleon-like woman who certainly knows her way around a gun, and may be a professional rival as well as a customer. Will this be the assassin’s proverbial “last job?” In the little old village lives a persistent old priest who speaks in aphorisms and has uncanny powers of perception, seeing in the American a great sinner and calling on him to confess his sins. Meanwhile in the nearest big town, lives a prostitute with a heart of gold.

That summary was written to emphasize the story and character cliches on offer because the film is mired in them. The visual filmmaking aims to find Truth in the formula, but is stymied by the hackneyed situation and superficial characterization. Outside of Clooney’s typically charismatic and expressive portrayal, the audience is given no reason to care about the assassin’s fate, and even more importantly, no reason to be interested in it. Information about his past is deliberately withheld for narrative effect, but information about his present- his thoughts, regrets, likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams, etc., etc.- is also withheld. Similarly, while the supporting performances are capable within the narrow limits of the material, the characters are overused and underwritten crime movie types.

Anton Corbijn’s (Control) direction and the editing give the film the sober pacing of a contemplative drama. It is a potentially promising approach to the “assassin confronted with his own mortality” storyline. The shot composition is very good, both in interior shots and the photography of the rural Italian landscape. There are striking overhead and panoramic views of the village where the assassin is hiding out and the surrounding countryside. The country has a stark beauty, but is not postcard-pretty; the built-on-a-hillside village is old and interesting with its whitewashed buildings and narrow, winding cobblestone paths, but not remotely tourist-quaint. (The paths are the setting for the several brief and suspenseful foot chases, none the less effective for a low-key presentation in keeping with the rest of the film.) The sets and costumes are similarly de-glamorized, with the pointed exception of the client-assassin, whose distinctive personal characteristic is her high-fashion camouflage.

One area where the visual storytelling is not successful is in the use of Christian and nature symbols. The use of symbolism is both heavy-handed and empty. The most irritating example is the insistent linking of the assassin to a butterfly. His alias is the Italian word for butterfly, he has a butterfly tattoo on his back, he is seen reading a field guide to butterflies, when a delicate white butterfly lands on his companion she observes that it is beautiful and he replies that it is endangered, and a butterfly (apparently the same butterfly, in fact) is seen and then not seen and then seen again at key moments leading up to the finale. For all that, the significance of the symbol is unclear, and its probable meaning unsupported by the script. Reading the butterfly in The American as a symbol of transformation (or rebirth or resurrection or the soul or the ephemeral nature of life, of any of its various and traditional cultural meanings) is much too weighty a burden for the characterization and storytelling to support.

1 1/2 stars


Possibly Related Posts: (Commentary Track generated)

Commentary Track review of The American by Nir Shalev.

A better choice for Clooney fans would be to re-watch (watch it now if you haven’t already!) Up in the Air. A better choice for anyone looking for a story of transformation and redemption is In Bruges.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sep 12 2010

    1 1/2 stars? Wow. I did not see that coming!

    Now, how similar is it to Melville’s “Le Samourai”?

  2. Helen
    Sep 13 2010

    If you think that was harsh, you should have heard the reviews by the friends I saw the movie with! “Worst movie of the year” was one of the kinder remarks.

    Le Samourai is an obvious genre/existentialism inspiration, but the movies aren’t really all that similar and there’s certainly no comparison in quality.

  3. Sep 13 2010

    I didn’t think so. From those that loved this film I heard them say, “I have no idea how most people will enjoy this film but I did. You’re no supposed to enjoy it, it’s just damn good”. Now I REALLY can’t wait to see it. lol

  4. Helen
    Sep 13 2010

    I’ll be interested to hear your opinion. Some in my moviegoing group disliked it because it/the protagonist wasn’t likable (which I agree is the case but wasn’t bothered by). My objection is that I couldn’t _believe_ in it because it’s such a cliche fest.

    I know you won’t rank it up there with Le Samourai though. Corbijn is a promising director. Melville was a master.

  5. Sep 14 2010

    Jean-Pierre Melville is my favourite French filmmaker, although I believe Renoir to have been and still be the best. And Corbijn’s “Control” is an amazing film; I actually own it.

    Oh, and from Melville I’d recently watched “Le Doulos”, with Jean-Paul Belmondo and it’s a fantastic film.

  6. Ken
    Sep 17 2010

    Shallow, disappointing, and cliche ridden is a good summary of this movie. Was there a protagonist in this story? At least one you could care about.

  7. Helen
    Sep 17 2010

    Yeah, we’re really never given a reason to care about the assassin’s fate, although the final scenes make me pretty confident that we were supposed to.

    I really want to see Corbijn’s first film Control now. Control has a good reputation and I’m curious to see what he can do with a strong script, since The American does show visual artistry.

  8. Sep 17 2010

    And Control is a gorgeous looking film, shot in glorious black and white.

  9. Aaron
    Sep 18 2010

    Well, that’s dissapointing. I thought for sure that this would be good.

  10. Nov 11 2010

    I’d just watched this film and find it to be one of 2010’s best films and a remarkably expert psychological study. The visual representations of colours and compositions represent Jack’s state of mind and I could go on but I’ll write a review for it on my blog. :OD

    It’s ironic, Helen, no? I love this film and you hate it while I hated “Public Enemies” and you loved it.

  11. Helen
    Nov 11 2010

    Write it up for the DVD release. Amazon says it comes out Dec 28.

  12. Nov 11 2010

    Cool, will do. :O)