This week’s popcorn: The American

‘The American’ has a different yearning to be free

Sept. 16, 2010

3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer

Artsy without being too schmartsy, director Anton Corbijn’s “The American” should please those viewers who don’t mind their movies veering off the main line from time to time. Though there’s no way of grasping all the secret ponderings that spirit this tale of derring-do, trying to make heads or tails of things certainly commands our attention.

Combining a respect for intrigue rarely seen since the brooding age of film noir with a style reminiscent of the experimentalism Michelangelo Antonioni unleashed in “Blow-Up” (1966), Corbijn dusts off some great old cues. And none of it is lost on George Clooney as the alternately cold-blooded and melancholic hit man at the center of the tale.

Clooney hops right aboard in a fine, studied performance. He is Jack, or maybe Edward.

“Is that really your name?” asks Clara (Violante Placido), the prostitute he’s been keeping company with while trying to sort out the mechanics of an assignment in the hauntingly picturesque village of Castel del Monte, Italy. There are essentially two plots.

First, there’s the one concerning Jack’s latest job, “a custom fit” as it’s called by his boss, Pavel (Johan Leysen), a weird power player almost always shown in half shadows.

But while it’ll surely be a while, if ever, before we can comprehend all this clandestine stuff, there are other fish to fry, like witnessing the turning point in a provocateur’s life.

Corbijn slyly gives us partial dispensation from feeling guilty about identifying with an assassin by painting everyone else a bit more darkly. No one escapes suspicion. Not even Father Benedetto, the old town priest who takes a nosy if not altruistic interest in Jack. If there’s a metaphor here, it doesn’t speak very benevolently of mankind.

But that doesn’t necessarily reflect on the power of the human spirit, which is alive and well in “The American,” as are dreams and the rationalizations necessary to staving off inevitable truths. Of course, this might mean breaking rules, like getting personally involved while on the clock. The cryptic Pavel reminds Jack that he once knew that rule.

We speculate if this will prove a tragic flaw, or if the filmmaker is just throwing us off the track with one of many slick curves. The thing is, what track? We know so few things for certain. Nevertheless, perhaps like our title protagonist, we can only hope there is an epiphany forthcoming … that some sense and vindication will come of our indulgence.

And then there are the women — a good one and a bad one, though neither Jack nor we are sure which is which. But let’s start with Mathilde, a fellow operative for whom our killer is designing a murder weapon. Portrayed by Thekla Reuten, her inscrutable, Mona Lisa smile doesn’t simplify matters. Their acerbic <ITALICS>tête-à-têtes<ITALICS> are a study in film tension.

But if you think Clara, beautifully styled by Violante Placido, is any less a caution, then you haven’t been hanging around the back alleys lately. Indeed, the kindly harlot appears harmless. Yet when it seems that she’s fallen for Jack, we are aware that this male fantasy is a cliché too good to be true. Then again, we suspect this isn’t a new situation for Jack.

Director Corbijn serves up an elemental landscape of ideas draped in a meticulous tapestry of chess moves, where survival is chided and challenged by love, sex and death. Making the gambit all the more confounding, if a grand plan exists in all this cloak-and-dagger turbulence, it is elusive. A couple steamy scenes are tossed in for good measure.

Doing a neo Steve McQueen, Clooney’s quiet character study is among the most artful he’s ever ventured. It makes the film. Uttering only a pungent smattering of carefully exacted lines, he does more with an arched eyebrow, a thin smile, a weak grimace and a pounding fist than one thought possible. He is that rare mix of movie star and thespian.

The awesome Castel del Monte backdrop offers Clooney a perfect stage for Jack’s ruminations. A majestic, labyrinthine complement to his quandary at this crucible in time, it is both breathtaking and poetically analogous. Paulo Bonacelli’s town priest injects a philosophical question mark, albeit with a homey touch, as the uncertain catalyst.

But this isn’t for everyone. Those who prefer meat ‘n’ potato heartiness at the Bijou may deem this fine bit of pâté a bit esoteric and derivative. On the other hand, both budding cineastes in search of revelation and veteran filmgoers who welcome an occasional testing of the gray matter should find “The American’s” foreign influence rewarding.

“The American,” rated R, is a Focus Features release directed by Anton Corbijn and stars George Clooney, Violante Placido and Thekla Reuten. Running time: 105 minutes.