REVIEW: George Clooney, The American Prove They Do Make Movies Like They Used To

Movieline Score: 9

Anton Corbijn's The American looks and feels like a movie made by a filmmaker who hasn't been to the movies since the '70s -- and I mean that as the highest compliment. This is Corbijn's second feature: His first was the elegiac and gorgeously shot (by Martin Ruhe) Control, based on the life story of Ian Curtis, lead singer of the influential and much-loved Manchester band Joy Division, who committed suicide at age 23 in 1980. Before Corbijn was a filmmaker, or even a director of videos for the likes of U2 and Depeche Mode, he was a photographer specializing in rock 'n' roll types as subjects; he had photographed Curtis and the other members of Joy Division early in his career, having left his native Holland for England because, as he's said in interviews, he wanted "to be where that music comes from."

Maybe The American, a contemplative thriller that's low on explosions, car chases and even dialogue, is an unlikely picture for a former rock 'n' roll photographer to make. But in its austerity and its artfully muted directness, I think it simply represents a more grown-up version of that youthful urgency -- to be where the music comes from, wherever it's coming from.

The American opens with a sequence in which George Clooney, whose character is clearly some sort of operative, shoots two people: One he needs to shoot; the other he would prefer not to shoot. Later we'll learn that his name -- or one of his names -- is Jack, and that one of his specialties is building customized weapons to exacting specifications. The movie opens in Sweden, but after those shootings, Jack decamps to the Italian countryside. His mysterious boss calls him with an assignment, and he sits down to his worktable, fitting together various gun parts with a jeweler's precision. In his heart he's a craftsman, not a fighter, but as we've already seen, he needs to be both.

He's also a butterfly enthusiast, and the women in his life -- sometimes affectionately and sometimes as a bit of a taunt -- call him Mr. Butterfly. When Jack meets the client who's put in the order for his latest firearm -- the unnervingly efficient Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), who slightly resembles Julie Christie, except with all of the edge and none of the softness -- he takes her to an idyllic, secret spot to try out the almost-finished weapon. The assignation is supposed to be purely business, but he's packed a picnic lunch. As they lounge on the grass, a translucent, grayish-cream butterfly lands on her arm -- it blends almost invisibly with the no-color cashmere dress she's wearing -- and Jack tells her, "It's endangered."

With my butterfly ears, I can hear what you're thinking: Corny dialogue alert. And maybe that line does qualify. But unlike so many movies today, The American doesn't desperately cling to dialogue as an anchor. (This beautifully succinct screenplay was adapted from Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman by Rowan Joffe, son of Roland Joffe and also the director of the upcoming Graham Greene adaptation Brighton Rock.) The American demands that you surrender to it, which I know, for some, is a code term for "It's boring." But Corbijn -- again working with cinematographer Martin Ruhe -- isn't just a former still photographer who now has to make images move. His compositions do tend to be quiet and elegant, but they're not static: He's urging us to find the movement in stillness, to feel its vibrations.

Clooney's Jack picks his way along silent, winding streets in the little Italian town where he's hiding out; some of the simple, dusky-colored stucco and brick buildings around him have probably been standing for centuries. Corbijn and Ruhe (along with the movie's editor, Andrew Hulme) keep the action so still -- even during a chase scene -- that you can almost hear those buildings whispering their long-held secrets. (The American, as its title subtly implies, is actually rather European.) And a single miniature detail in the movie's final shot is also, I suspect, something of a challenge thrown down by Corbijn, his way of saying, "I dare you to watch this on your iPod."

At the screening I attended, some of my fellow critics were murmuring about the movie's similarity to Antonioni's The Passenger, but The American left me thinking of less openly arty pictures like Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop and Richard C. Sarafian's Vanishing Point, movies that we now (rightly) consider art but that used to just be entertainment. Like The American, those movies may be a bit oblique in the way they chase after existentialist truths, but they also have a hushed sense of urgency. You can see all of that urgency in Clooney's disquieting performance. This is a character study of a man who, it first appears, has no center -- he finds that center even as we do, and watching Clooney wander toward his character's lost self is one of the great pleasures of the movie. Clooney overplays nothing -- he appears to show shifts in emotion by changing the shadow in his eyes rather moving the muscles in his face. Even his hair, a salt-and-pepper mix, is stranded between two wholly different lives, the then and the now.

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  • Am says:

    Well, you just convinced me to go watch it.

  • emberglance says:

    me too, totes. the grass roots campaign starts here...

  • bierce says:

    I don't know... there's a lot of apologizing for liking this film throughout the review. Maybe it's just a Clooney crush.

  • The7Sticks says:

    The film reminds me of some of the Depeche Mode videos directed by Corbijn, particularly "Enjoy The Silence" and "Strangelove": (Enjoy The Silence); (Strangelove)

  • richie-rich says:

    I adore TWO LANE BLACKTOP. And I have a soft spot for THE PASSENGER. I know FOR CERTAIN my dear friend Pauline Kael is sticking out her tongue at me, but I love most of Antonnoni even though it's true he has ONLY one MASTERPIECE, L'AVVENTURA & the rest is (fun) trash....a word PK often used. The blow-up sequence of BLOW UP is masterful. Years ago, after dinner with PK, her good friend Veronica Geng ( who wrote brilliant, funny short stories for THE NEW YORKER) & I took a walk Uptown, and we both confessed to each other our love for Antonnoni. We both swore never to let PK know although i did! In ECLIPSE...MONICA VITTI AND ALAIN DELON up there in that plane and all those clouds....well, pleasure is pleasure. Pauline's tag line for the movie was SOME LIKE IT COLD. PK is exactly right, but still........what a fun, fun movie. It depressed the holy hell out of me. I wrote PK a long letter after I saw this movie...and she wrote back saying my letter was "gorgeous." I think Pauline was sincere.
    Can't wait to see CLOONEY in this movie...

  • John Lake says:

    I just got back from seeing this POS. I'm sure there was a story there, at sometime, maybe in pre-production, but it didn't make the final cut. I have also never seen Clooney this one-dimensional. Maybe some blaring Depeche Mode and more sweaty, angst filled, facial close-ups would have helped.

  • Brian says:

    It was a very good movie, but not at all the type of movie it was marketed as. If you enjoy acting, you'll like this movie. If you enjoy watching shit blow up (as I suspect John Lake does) you won't like it. No spoilers, but this is not an action movie, or even a real espionage movie. It's a drama, and a small scale one at that. It's probably the best movie I've seen since the Ghost Writer.

  • Michael says:

    I went to see this movie over the weekend. A very BORING movie.

  • Trace says:

    Spot-on review. Minor movie, but a good one.

  • scott says:

    Dear God !!!! Finally, a reviewer that "gets it". This is a tremendous film with great feel, acting, action, romance, all done in the way of the great old foreign films. All the people saying it was boring are tasteless morons that need their action fed to them with a spoon. Go watch your mindless Vin Deisel movies.

  • JAB says:

    This is certainly not a movie for "The Expendables" crowd (or the "Machete" crowd either).
    Your review nailed it & I liked it for all the attributes you describe. (Note: I love all of the movies of Paul Greengrass which are pretty much the opposite of this one.)
    It is very European in its pacing & attitudes toward other stuff Americans typically (ridiculously) shun.
    I haven't seen Clooney look this glum since "Syriana" (or most of --the excellent-- "Up In The Air"), but that monochromatic emotional state makes sense for his character & works here. It's minimalist style does a great job at creating a foreboding sense of paranoia that builds throughout the movie.
    (Sexist alert: And for red blooded blokes who play fantasy football, the women look great!)

  • WTB says:

    I just saw The American. Probably one of the worst movies I have ever seen. The American is awful. Nonsensical, stupid and vapid.

  • FNJ says:

    This is by far the worst movie ever made.. No plot, no dialog, no story.. George Cluney drives around the Italian country side doing situps, making guns and sipping coffee all why uttering no more than 15 lines for 1 1/2 hours. I wanted to stand up in the middle of the mostly empty theater and ask if any one knew wtf was going on..

  • FNJ says:

    Gee Scott.. I guess your idea of entertainment is watching paint dry and the grass grow. You are a complete idiot if you think this was a tremendous film, you need your head examined. What was this movie about.. I dont know.. What was George thinking.. I dont know... What was the reviewer who loved this moving thinking.. I dont know.. Why in the world did you like this movie.. Because your a moron

  • FNJ says:

    I just cant stop myself from commenting on this POS movie.. Please dont go see this movie.. Here's a list of things that are more entertaining to do and cost less.
    1) Watch your cat like his balls
    2) Watch your dog like his balls
    3) Watch your dog like your cats balls
    4) Watch two old guys in the park play checkers
    5) Watch two old guys watching two old guys in the park playing checkers
    6) Watch two old guys watching a dog like a cats balls

  • Kathryn Griffin says:

    I love George Clooney, and absolutely hated this film. I saw absolutely nothing redeemable--there was no acting, just Clooney looking great, no plot, no twists or turns-- nothing. Contrary to one reviewer who stated only morons who love action movies such as "The Expendables" wouldn't like this movie, not true. I am hardly a fan of shoot-em-ups, but I am a fan of plot, storyline, all the things that go into a great movie--this was not a great, or even a marginally good movie, unless you love Clooney enough to stare at him for an hour and a half.

  • Nancy T. says:

    What a horrible movie! Just rented it last night and it was so boring, absolutely had nothing going for it. It was so bad my husband wanted to personally write George Clooney and tell him how bad the movie was and his limited acting skills.

  • Matt says:

    This is a critical, thoughtful review with subtlety and style--much like the movie itself. I too appreciate the tight editing, bare storyline, and minimal amount of dialogue. The visual and nuanced linguistic poetry is anything but boring. But somehow, the fact that a sophisticated movie released to a wider audience involving guns and standoffs can still be uninteresting to some folks may be more of a statement about the American audience than the film itself.

  • melissa says:

    This was the worst movie I have ever seen!!! An hour and 1/2 I will never get back....terrible!!! Whoever thought this was a good movie is an idiot!

  • bobo says:

    This typical european film simply has no plot or real story. No one knows why "Jack" is hired to kill somoeone let alone why the distant lady wants him to make her a super rifle. There is no reason that Jack always finds and kills strange men who find a way to track him down no matter where he is. The dark, menacing streets seem to be always void of other human beings, wonder where the are. Jack has a habit to peer through binoculars from his room to another town on a hilltop far away. . . looking for what?? Finally he kills the man who hires him, but there is no reason why he kills this guy. And to end the film, there is the dragged-out finale where Jack rushes to meet his whore girlfriend at a river, dying while doing so. So camp!!!!

  • Hernán Medina Ceceña says:

    I believe this is a really great movie, narrated with excellence.

  • John Franson says:

    I, my friends and their dads all loved this movie. After reading the brain-dead negative reviews, I'm feeling rather superior.