Anton Corbijn's "The American" is an adaptation of Martin Booth's novel, "A Very Private Gentleman," which would have been a much more fitting title. "The American" fell victim to poor marketing, promising audiences a tense, by-the-books thriller focusing on a hitman. Needless to say, many were not pleased with the actual film, a tensely silent, meditation on life marked at times by brief, but well handled shootouts. "The American" is not a conventional film, but is one of the best of 2010.
The film follows Jack, a coolly professional assassins played by George Clooney. In a move to evade an unknown Swedish threat, Jack travels to Rome, where to meet with his boss, Pavel. With a lurking sense of paranoia brimming under the surface at all times, Jack tosses the supplies Pavel provides him and travels to the tiny town of Castel del Monte, a distance from the town originally assigned to him by Pavel. There we get glimpses of Jack's nearly silent life, which consists of exercising in his Spartan like apartment and walking the town. Somewhat reluctantly he strikes up a friendship with a local priest (Palo Bonacelli), whose conversations are brief, equally quiet, but speak volumes for both men who have their own troubles buried away.
Corbijn's direction manages to make the first 45-minutes go by rather quickly, no small feat, given the dialogue sparse nature of the film. He ensures every word spoken has meaning and every action tells the unspoken story. We see Jack's paranoia in his body language and reaction to sounds, the tiniest of which could always be perceived as a threat. The only fact we learn initially is his love of butterflies, shown through a butterfly tattoo on his upper back and his nightly habit of reading a book on the subject. Later in the film, his one spoken line about the subject is an immensely powerful statement of his own person and will silently sit in the back of the viewer's mind until the closing frame.
When things do pick up in the traditional sense, Corbijn gives us a romantic interest in the form of local prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), while Mathilde, the equally attractive, client Pavel sends to Jack in order to construct a rifle for her own work is the counterpoint to how Jack deals with people. The romantic relationship between Clara and Jack is incredibly honest and heartfelt, with Placido delivering as skillful, if not more skilled performance than Clooney, who is uncharacteristically devoid of all charm here. He captures the intended gamut of emotion from cold professionalism, to the haunted hints of wanting more from a life, where he's only good at one thing: killing.
Martin Ruhe's cinematography plays excellently off of Corbijn's skilled direction, and his breathtaking eye for the Italian town provides a great backdrop for the brief moments of violence that grace it's streets. The mazelike streets which Jack walks daily and nightly are a great source of tension, with the viewer and Jack never knowing where danger may lurk, with the soundscape playing a big role. The bow on the whole package is provided by Herbert Grönemeyer's simple score that is attractively haunting a wonderful echo of the soul of our protagonist.
"The American" will likely come and go on DVD the same way it came and went in theaters. It is the underdog of 2010 (it did turn a tidy profit, but not one would expect from a Clooney vehicle), due mostly to a botched ad campaign, but also to its narrow focus and appeal. It is a film that requires an investment of patience and thought; Corbijn refuses to spell out things in an obvious fashion, leaving some motivations ambiguous and unseen actions unspoken of. It is a film that never really leaves the sight of its character and through his own emotional barriers we view the world. For those who aren't put off by such a film, "The American" is likely to be one of the most rewarding films of the year, cementing Clooney's ability to consistently push the boundaries of his own range.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer captures the beauty of the Italian countryside, with minimal edge enhancement. Detail is strikingly high, capturing the intricacies of the actor's faces in close ups and the depth of the backgrounds. Color levels are solidly balanced, capturing the warm days and cool nights, with equally solid contrast.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio is as understated as the film itself, using the surrounds effectively, while still being subtle, but still managing to open up during the film's few action sequences. Dialogue is well balanced, even during quiet conversations and the sound of the sonically suppressed rifle Jack works on has a great kick to it. French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are included as well as an English 2.0 descriptive audio track. Spanish and French subtitles are included as well as English subtitles for the hearing impaired.
The extras consist of a quality feature-length commentary track from director Corbijn. Less exciting is the EPK style, 10-minute featurette "Journey to Redemption: The Making of The American." Last but not least is a selection of deleted scenes that often feel like too-long extensions as well as support for a false subplot.
"The American" is a truly outstanding, quiet character study that is well worth your time. Anton Corbijn rewards viewers who want more from their movies than cheap thrills and cheap pontifications on life's greater purpose. The characters here feel real, despite their larger than life professions, and the understand acting is as much as a reward as the film as a whole. Highly Recommended.