Friday, June 10, 2011

The American (2010)

Mr. Butterfly

- Many who see The American do so expecting to see some kind of Jason Bourne-style action/adventure. Don't. It seems as if much of today's movie-going audiences expect a film that they spend $8.50 on (plus the price of popcorn) to fit inside their pre-conceived notions on what films can and, more importantly, should be. Much of the time when a film, like The American, defies simple categorization by more or less living reel-to-reel by its own agenda, the public does not know what to do with it - and that does not always sit well with Joe Cinemagoer. The American does not attempt to be a conventional action movie nor should it because it is terrific the way it is.

George Clooney stars as Jack.... Edward.... Mr. Butterfly, a man whose occupation is not quite clear. What is clear, however, is the talent Jack has for weapons and killing - and which side of right and wrong his line of work lies. Jack is a survivalist in the plainest sense - the ability to assess a situation with a forceful objectivity and come out ahead has been Jack's strong suit and the only reason that he has survived in his profession for so long. But Jack's dark side is as much his livelihood as it is his crutch, for the place that Jack is weakest is in his heart. An obvious veteran at what he does, Jack has lost his humanity after all of these years and, whether he knows it fully or not, is on an emotional evolutionary road towards getting it back.

Unfortunately, a heavy heart weighs a man down in a business that requires one to be light and quick on their feet. Meaningful relationships tend to get people killed in this realm, where one is supposed to be a cold, calculated killer in a cruel, unforgiving line of work - and someone (at least one person) close to Jack does get caught in the crossfire.

People want to kill Jack. Maybe this is because he is too good at what he does; maybe it is because he is losing his touch. Whatever the reason, Jack's superior sends him hiding in a quiet Italian town to finish a seemingly easy and pain-free job as the most recent situation begins to hopefully settle down. But current consequences from past deeds find their way back to Jack and his weak heart longs for an Italian hooker named Clara. Now he wants out - but can he get out?

For a highly distributed, A-list Hollywood icon-headlined, and Labor Day Weekend opening film, The American is very unique and un-blockbuster like. Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn's direction is superb, filling every scene with many tiny subtle aspects to really appreciate.... things about the character, the film's themes, etc. One thing that I particularly like about the very presentation of The American is how Corbijn and company were able to create the film in a way in which its atmosphere mirrors the main character's quiet, paranoid, introverted, and hurt nature. The American feels very natural, leisurely sometimes. Its most tense scenes are built up by silence, a black hole of anticipation preceding short bursts of violence. Corbijn's direction is surely first-rate; we just do not see this kind of direction in film all that often.

The cinematography too is excellent - for such a dark, contemplative film The American is quite beautiful as well. Cinematographer Martin Ruhe brings out the best in the tiny Italian town, dabbing each frame with an ornate sense of coloring, as well as the worst, commanding the shadows to work for the film's aura and suspense. A soft Herbert Grönemeyer score does well to build upon the film's personality as well. It does not take more than a dusty beat or a flicking of a few piano keys for Grönemeyer's thinly scattered score to deepen a scene's mood.

As Mr. Butterfly, Clooney could not be playing anymore against type, his trademark charm is nowhere to be found and it is not required. Seeing Clooney play so far off type is great but it is even better seeing him playing it so well. Trading in his career-defining smirk and quick wit for subtle expression and underplayed emotion, Clooney dominates the film with his very compelling performance of a relatable and sympathetic character. On a simple note, Clooney's Mr. Butterfly character is a convincing killer as well as a cool and interesting guy - thanks to his presence and characterization - and when looking into things he is also very empathetic in his desire to reconnect to his lost humanity and develop a real relationship with someone. Clooney has never been seen like this before in movies nor has he been at this high level of impressive in years.

For whatever reason, everything nowadays has to be grouped or compared to something - for example, this year Inception had to be called "James Bond meets The Matrix" when it was, in fact, something completely different on both counts. People seem to need to put every film inside a little box so that they can better view it and then throw it away. However, The American cannot be placed inside a box, cannot be simply labeled: it is a dramatic thriller; psychological in many ways, completely character-centered, equipped with heavy espionage overtones and thick with a European cinematic style. What do you call it? The American.

CBC Rating: 9/10

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