Sunday, September 5, 2010

To the limit

The American [***]

Control director Anton Corbijn's second picture as director, The American evokes memories of yet another picture about control, the aptly titled Limits of Control by Jim Jarmusch. Both are films that unfold at a speed roughly the pace of a Sunday drive (that probably sounds like a negative when phrased in such a way, but it is actually a pretty high compliment), both films feature a leading man whose expressionless face could bore holes through stone, they love espresso and often find themselves in the company of a beautiful naked woman (although only the hero of Jarmusch's film has the capacity to resist urges of any kind). What makes both films smashing successes is the way the hero is often left alone with his own thoughts. As a hitman how often do you contemplate, in your loneliness, your own death? Do you ever wonder if the only other guy who knows where you are is conspiring against you? That's how a movie in which nothing much happens is able to pull you in. It gives you time to think about the aforementioned questions, but also given the right actor you can see past the stone-pokerfacedness and watch those introspective gears turn. It's a way of knowing that we're asking ourselves the right question as an audience.

Admittedly, The American is a fairly typical George Clooney role. An equal in tone and pacing to Michael Clayton in which his character, a consummate and unflappable bad ass in his chosen profession, who comes to the late in the game realization that he's been working for the wrong side all along. And if he has always known that fact, and let's assume that he is smart enough to be aware of this, the movie is usually about the final job in a line of work that threatens to destroy his soul entirely.

Clooney has always had an understated world weariness to him and he uses it to great effect here as he typically does. I like best the smaller moments that let us see the constantly engaged hitman's brain in action. When visiting a local mechanic he quickly scans the shed for the parts he'll need to build a sound suppressor for a rifle. It's a deftly edited sequence that shows a man quick on his feet, a contrast to the slightly frazzled trigger man we see in the film's opening. Editing aside, Clooney brings a keen sense of awareness to the proceedings. He's constantly calling his boss and delaying the job because he's starting to grapple, perhaps for the first time ever, with an inability to detach himself from his work. If his work is to be in Italy he will, of course, fall in love with someone. He also becomes friends with a priest, both are ways of passively and aggressively searching for an avenue out of his life of crime.

The American is not a typically breathlessly paced Hollywood thriller but a slow burner that examines the consequences of a certain kind of life with a certain amount of speed and care. It is also another worthy addition to the typical George Clooney character pantheon.

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