Sunday, September 12, 2010

Float Like a Butterfly: The American

The American stars George Clooney and gives a nod toward Clint Eastwood, but all movie long I thought of Steve McQueen. How could I not? It’s the quintessential McQueen role: terse, intense, attractive, suave. There’s even a motorcycle chase. Er, make that a Vespa chase. Close enough. Like Frank Bullitt, Doc McCoy, Tom Horn and so many other McQueen roles, Clooney’s character is a mysterious loner, and for the most part he likes it that way. Also like those McQueen roles, what little we learn about Clooney’s “Jack” (he’s called a number of different names in this film) is coaxed out of him in the tender embrace of a beautiful woman – a woman Jack is drawn to less because of who she is than because of how unusually at ease he feels in her presence, which isn’t to say he always feels at ease. That this woman is frequently topless is yet another element of The American that recalls McQueen’s filmography, because it’s hard to recall a time since the 1970s in which a major American star at the apex of his career appeared in a movie so comfortable with nudity. In the same way that small European towns are delightfully unfussy and old-fashioned, so too is The American, which in pacing and plot seems to belong to a bygone age of American cinema.

Surely it’s no coincidence then that The American is directed by a Dutchman, Anton Corbijn, who despite his background directing upbeat music videos, for U2 and Depeche Mode among others, demonstrates a meditative European cinematic sensibility. Thus it’s ironic that the tone of this film reminded me of a line from a blockbuster by the most American of filmmakers, Steven Spielberg: Corbijn’s film seems to take place in the space between spaces. (I’m still not exactly sure what that’s supposed to mean in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but in this case it feels right.) The American is like the epilogue and prologue of two Jason Bourne movies made into a film of its own. Even then, all the stuff that would usually be given center stage – the who, the how, the why – is left to rattle about in the shadows, tangibly near but never examined. Written by Rowan Joffe, based on a novel by Martin Booth, The American is the enemy of certainty. It remains ambiguous not because it wants to be profoundly inexplicable but because the film itself, if it’s about anything at all, is about the experience of not knowing. Clooney’s Jack operates in a world that requires him to trust some seemingly untrustworthy people very much and everyone else not at all. It’s a lonely existence, and a paranoid one. But it pays well, and the traveling is nice.

The McQueen film that The American conjures most is Bullitt, because that McQueen movie, more than any other, relies on the King of Cool’s awesome presence – that special combination of forcefulness and grace. And so it is here with Clooney. The magnetism of the lead is crucial in these two pictures precisely because the plots aren’t. Bullitt and The American are both patient quasi-thrillers in which the story’s core mysteries manage to be simultaneously inexplicable and obvious – a seemingly mutually exclusive combination that can be achieved only when the plot is ultimately superfluous. High Noon director Frank Zinnemann once noted that Bullitt is proof that “you can make a very successful film without really having much of a story.” Speaking at the American Film Institute in 1984, Zimmemann said of Bullitt: “I defy anyone to tell me what it’s about, except that there is a crooked politician and a cop, and a key witness has been shot. That’s all. The rest of it is a car chase and all kinds of visual excitement, and nobody in the world gives a damn about the story. People flock to see it because of the visual excitement.” The principal element of visual excitement in Bullitt is McQueen himself, as it is with Clooney in The American. We rarely understand why someone is running or shooting in this film, but we don’t really need to. Clooney’s presence convinces us that this is all worth watching.

Of course, having detailed the similarities of The American and Bullitt, I’m required to point out a key difference: there’s no action set-piece in Corbijn’s film that even begins to rival Bullitt’s famous San Francisco car chase. To audiences with short attention spans or an affinity for Michael Bay movies (forgive the redundancy), The American might feel like a tease, a movie that commits the sin of not even attempting to appease our country’s ever increasing addiction to adrenaline. But considering that most American movies about professional assassins approach adrenaline the way that porn films approach eroticism (see: The Expendables), this says more about what we’ve become conditioned to expect than it does about what good movies actually deliver. That’s why you won’t find me arguing that The American needs a really long chase sequence. But I will say this: to be a great film, The American needed something like Bullitt’s car chase.

Confused by the apparent contradiction? Let me explain. The American doesn’t suffer from a lack of action, because it’s not an action movie. It does suffer, however, from its lack of a defining moment (unless we conclude that the film’s final minutes are its defining moment, which would be a shame, because while the ending is appropriate it’s also a bit of a departure from all that happens before it). The problem with men of few words is that they’re rarely given anything especially memorable to say and so their physical action must speak for them – as it does in Bullitt, or in Eastwood’s collaborations with Sergio Leone. (Spoilers ahead.) Fact is, as fascinating as it is to watch Jack play MacGyver, using car parts to fashion a one-of-a-kind weapon, we never get to enjoy the payoff. And that brings us to The American’s other letdown: For a movie full of trained assassins, each attempted hit is always as curiously and unnecessarily complicated – weapons not loaded when they should be, marks stalked at public places, shots taken from afar when it would be easy enough to get up close and personal. Then again, I could make the same criticisms of Bullitt. How appropriate.

In the battle of silent intensity, McQueen had more je ne sais quoi, but Clooney has more range. In The American, he projects fury, fear and longing, each one convincing and recognizable, even though they seem to be just a few subtle clicks apart on a sharpshooter’s scope. All the while, Clooney’s Jack protects tantalizing secrets, not just from his love interest, Clara, played by a devastatingly alluring Violante Placido, a gorgeously natural physical specimen who might be sexiest with her clothes on, but from everyone else, too. The American lacks the high-caliber explosiveness of a Michael Mann movie, but there’s a similar masculine brooding and a sense that love is as doomed as it is potentially redeeming. The American’s butterfly symbolism might be a little too on-the-antennae, but Clooney wears his insect tattoo as well as McQueen did in Papillon, so it's not a total loss. And in a year marked by 3-D films promising movies like never before, there’s something overwhelmingly satisfying about a cinematic experience that feels like something from decades ago.


Unknown said...

I'm of two minds about "The American". The mood, the filmmaking, the compositions, Clooney's performances and, let's be honest, the natural beauty and presence of both actresses (Placido & Reuten) represented so much of what I feel is missing from movies today. Like "Bullitt", quite an astute comparison by the way, I still wished there was a little more to it story-wise than elements from a hit man film presented in a slightly oblique way.

It leads me to question the story and character moments, which like "Bullitt", wants to be meaningful and fatalistic but winds up unintentionally coming across as wish fulfillment. For example, a hooker falling in love with a client or a hitman with a sixth sense to kill someone sneaking up behind him multiple times.

I still can't quite shake the movie despite that. The images and the mood worked effectively. And I keep replaying scenes in my head. Also, is it just me or is the scene with Clooney and Reuten testing out the supergun by the lake perversely sexy? In fact, it was quite welcome to see an English-language movie that was so frank about sex considering how repressed our society is these days.

Richard Bellamy said...

... The American, which in pacing and plot seems to belong to a bygone age of American cinema.

... there’s something overwhelmingly satisfying about a cinematic experience that feels like something from decades ago.

This bygone tone is what I enjoyed about The American, and I had definitely labeled it 60s - with its nudity and its portrayal of a lost soul in a foreign setting - so I definitely connect with your Bullitt comparisons.

I know what you're saying about the lack of a defining moment. I expected that moment to come when Jack is left alone in the gas station cafe with those curiously squared off tables, but it didn't come and I was disappointed. There are memorable moments tough - especially with Placido.

Back to that bygone 60s tone of the lost soul who is a policeman/secret agent/or assassin - and Bullitt is definitely an iconic example. There are many lesser films of that genre, and I wonder if anyone has seen one of my favorites: A Dandy in Aspic with Laurence Harvey, as an assassin playing double agent in 1960s Berlin, Mia Farrow, and Tom Courtenay. Anybody?

Jason Bellamy said...

Steven: Yeah, I've always felt Bullitt needs an extra something, so it goes without saying that this film does, too. But, like you, it's hard to shake what works in this film.

As for the shotgun testing, it's a good scene, though for the life of me I can't figure out why she brought her own target. That was just a strange detail. I can justify it, it just didn't feel true.

That said, I wasn't all that fond of Reuten in this picture. Maybe it was the contrast with Placido, but she just seemed so rigid. I know that's the character -- the female version of Clooney's Jack. I'm not sure what I wanted, but that character didn't exactly work for me -- especially (spoilers ahead) considering that any hitwoman worth a darn would have just shot Jack in the damn restaurant.

Hokahey: I haven't seen those, but I'll put 'em in the Netflix queue. Good picks.

I agree: there are memorable moments -- anything with Placido, particularly their date -- just no defining ones.

Tony Dayoub said...

I rarely disagree with you, but I don't see the BULLITT/McQueen connection quite as strongly as you do. THE AMERICAN seems descended straight from Melville and Delon's LE SAMOURAI, another meditative and distinctly European take on the iconic cinematic American loner. Other films it recalls are POINT BLANK and the DOLLARS trilogy, again representing a European's take on American icons. In many ways it would make a great double bill with last year's LIMITS OF CONTROL which had an American director inverting the traditional trope and casting a non-American in the role of hitman just like Delon in Melville's film.

But here is where THE AMERICAN does overlap with McQueen's performances, and it is key to appreciating Clooney's fantastic turn here. Unlike the previous films I cited where the hero only seems to exist within the frame and never once he leaves it, Clooney's eyes fill in the blanks and reveal an internal life, and a life outside the film frame. This is what gives the film the unusual tension I feel many overlook because they were expecting another BOURNE-type thriller.

(Interesting bit of trivia: Did you guys know Violante Placido is the daughter of Simonetta Stefanelli, the woman who played Michael's first wife, Apollonia, in THE GODFATHER. Now if that doesn't make this movie resonate in an even deeper meta sense.)

Jason Bellamy said...

THE AMERICAN seems descended straight from Melville and Delon's LE SAMOURAI, another meditative and distinctly European take on the iconic cinematic American loner. Other films it recalls are POINT BLANK and the DOLLARS trilogy, again representing a European's take on American icons. In many ways it would make a great double bill with last year's LIMITS OF CONTROL which had an American director inverting the traditional trope and casting a non-American in the role of hitman just like Delon in Melville's film.

Tony: How dare you disagree! But, seriously, I wouldn't disagree with the above notion, but, well, I've actually never seen Le Samourai (though I'm familiar with it), nor Limits of Control. So my comparison to Bullitt is really a product of two things: 1) Realizing within 10 minutes that it was a perfect McQueen role, which hit me when Clooney steps off the train in Rome wearing his designer shades, and then 2) realizing that the McQueen film it most reminds me of is Bullitt because of the importance of the silent aura of the star and the lack of importance of things like plot. So I wouldn't say that Bullitt is the closest comparison, but once you look at it within McQueen's filmography, it works surprisingly well.

That is great trivia about Placido, by the way. And that, once knowing it, you can see it is even better.

Thanks for jumping in, Tony. Always interested in your thoughts.

Daniel said...

As you may know, I was impatient with the plot of The American and unconvinced by Clooney's performance (one key difference between him and McQueen is that McQueen made a career out of these characters; Clooney merely dabbles from time to time). There was enough to admire about it otherwise, but on par it fell flat from what I was expecting, which was not an action thriller, but at least a deeper mystery or more well-rounded character study.

Also, great point about the kills being very lackluster in comparison to the focus on weapons. Maybe there is a deeper message therein about the glamour of the killing business, but then I don't think there was really anything deep in this film, let alone something like that.

Fletch said...

From the git-go, I was bothered by the apparent lack of professionalism in these trained assassins. That snow job...hello, footprints? I don't even need to see hundreds of spy movies to be that naive. Of course, that didn't detract from my enjoyment too much.

True, there's not a single defining moment, but there remain several interesting ones, from the opening scenes to the paranoia/chase and the test shots through the finale.

Overall, I was bothered most by the superficial issues here that were left unexplained - why did the creepy boss man show up in the first place? Did Clooney really have to NOT smile at all - even once - for the first 70 minutes? How could anyone in that village not know who killed the original owner of the Vespa? Etc., etc.

Excellent write-up, as usual.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fletch: Thanks, man. I agree with you that there are some oddities in terms of Clooney's mood. I thought he seemed especially peeved for no reason in the scene at the telephone.

And, yeah, these hitmen need some help. They always seem to do their best to take the farthest shot possible or to walk the longest distance possible to their target. I'm no professional, but here's a thought: camp outside the dude's door and just shoot him when he comes out. Done.

tw said...

Spoiler Alert! The more I think about this film the less I like it. (Although I do agree with you about the welcome 70s air about the whole thing.) Clooney is unconvincing as the cool, totally in control master of himself and his environment. (Compare Clooney here to de Niro in Ronin.) Then there are the many incomprehensible plot issues. For example, the female assasin explains in great detail the requirements for the rifle. Do Jack then go and build it? No -- it arrives in the mail! The only thing Jack builds is the silencer!

Finally: I apologize for asking you to explain another critic's comment, but yours is the best discussion I've found. Ebert says that entire film turns on "the wrong person" saying "Mr. Butterfly." Well, let's see: 1) The assasin calls him Mr. B, once at the river when testing the rifle and once at the coffee shop on delivery. Why? Because at the river he betrays his special knowledge of butterflies. 2) The prostitute calls him Mr. B many times. Why? Because he has a butterfly tatoo on his back. 3) Her girlfriend calls him Mr. B. Why? Because the prostitute told her about the tatoo, or simply because she uses the name that the prostitute does. So where is the "wrong person" that betrays something significant by saying "Mr. Butterfly"?

Jason Bellamy said...

TW: Thanks for weighing in. I'm not bothered that Jack doesn't build the entire gun. True, he basically just builds the silencer. But it also shows him monkeying with the gun's spring. So while the bulk of the gun is mailed to him as-is, I think the implication is that he made some enhancements to it beyond the silencer.

I agree with you that this isn't a film that stands up well to close scrutiny of its plot. As I said in the previous comment, I was most bothered by the fact that all the assassination attempts (the one at the beginning of the film, the ones in the town, the one that doesn't happen at the restaurant) all seemed to be needlessly complicated.

As for Ebert's review: I think your math is absolutely right on; I didn't understand Ebert's reasoning either. I presume he's thinking that the female assassin exposes herself, but, as you noted, there's a perfectly logical reason for associating Jack with a butterfly. Well, two good reasons actually: 1) as a professional assassin herself, she knows that any name he gives her isn't real, so calling him butterfly is as good as anything; 2) he identifies the endangered butterfly at the picnic site -- and if Ebert doesn't remember that, then the film's final shot must have gone over his head, which seems impossible. So I suspect Ebert just got confused -- perhaps the drawback of writing hundreds of reviews each year.

The only other possibility is that Jack's boss calls him butterfly at some point -- I've only seen the film, so I can't remember. But what would that expose? He's been his boss for a long time, so he'd probably know about the tattoo. If not, he might have learned of the tattoo from the female assassin, which doesn't expose anything, because Jack knows that his boss put the two of them together for business in the first place.

So, short story long, no, that doesn't make sense to me either.

One final note: Yesterday I went to lunch with a coworker. Two women nearby were talking about movies. One mentioned wanting to see The American. The other said she'd seen it. "How was it?" The woman thought for a moment. Instantly I could tell that she didn't like it, but she seemed to be wanting to avoid calling it a "bad movie," as if that wasn't quite right. She was searching for a way to express her dissatisfaction. After a good five seconds she said, "I wanted to gouge my eyes out." Now that's a review!

Tom said...

Any thoughts on theme? The film is entitled "the American" after all. Is this a European commentary on our foreign policy? A mercenary who wanders far from home, where his violent past eventually catches up with him? Just a guess.
As always I enjoyed the film and your review J. I saw it with some friends, and about 2/3 of them fell asleep. I rather enjoyed the deliberate pace. It felt like a breath of fresh air after years of action films constantly upping the adrenaline ante. This was a good role for Clooney, he does gravitas well. Comedy, not so much.