Review: The American

 

Of all the visual metaphors for sexual tension, I am surprised that this one has not been done before (feel free to correct me if I am wrong): A woman slowly, but efficiently assembles a heavily caliber weapon, lingering on every pin and component, literally screwing them in. It is a moment of visual wit adrift in a sea of self-serious and meticulous construction. From the initial ultra-slow dissolve you can safely guess that a world-class photographer is at the helm of this film. The director is Anton Corbijn, the dutch photographer who defined much of the style of a diverse group of rock and roll acts (From U2 to Bjork) in Album art, magazine stills and music videos before moving into feature film territory with a biopic on Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. There is no denying that his new film, The American, is stunning to look at. From its icy space in Sweden to its cobble-stoned Italian village (Castel del Monte will surely get a boost in tourism after this) nestled in the mountains as well as the framing of some of the more beautiful human specimens on the planet there is a diligent respect for space and geography but it seems to eat away at everything else in the film. Compare The American to other art-genre pictures such as Le Samourai or Point Blank or The Limey – films that feature anti-heroes who have little in their lives but their professional details – and there is something distinctly lacking. Maybe I am missing something, but those former films seem to have something else on their plate beyond pure craftsmanship, whereas The American is all craft and no soul. It plays well enough while its on, but evacuates your brain the moment the end credits roll.

The story, told in a deliberate fashion with oblique dialogue and sensual visual palette, plays like a James Bond film. In the pre-credits sequence, George Clooney, who is either Jack or Edward, or perhaps someone else entirely (other than some military-type tattoos ironically featuring “Veritas Aequitas”) is chilling by the fire with his lady friend in an isolated cabin Sweden. Upon taking a walk around the grounds of the icy and still hideaway, a rapid succession of shooting and murder leaves ‘the American’ fleeing the country to Rome. His only contact (the requisite elderly mysterious yet well dressed European) gives him a new job that allows for a low profile while his betters figure out what happened in Sweden. The job is very simple, build a custom-made rifle for an assassin and lay low, avoiding any contact or relationship beyond the job. Not unlike 007, the American doesn’t exactly follow orders (he doesn’t even go to the particular town specified by his contact and dumps the cell phone favouring a more old-fashioned way of communicating with his contact), while still maintaining a degree of professionalism. The local catholic priest senses a troubled soul and invites Jack over for dinner and civilized conversation, while a little tension is let off with a (gorgeous) local prostitute. Eschewing shoot outs and action, for a more meditative look a the lonely agent, the focus is on the time spent in Castel del Monte, his relationship with the prostitute, which threatens to go beyond a simple professional transaction, and the minutiae of modifying a high-caliber rifle.

There is a satisfying rhythm in the details and the crisp, no-nonsense (almost Mamet-esque) dialogue is a welcome change for exposition rich spy films that offer little beyond stale action and convoluted plot. There is also no denying that The American ultimately culminates to a point with a few twists along the way, but Anton Corbijn has a long way to go before he is at the level of Jim Jarmusch for this sort of thing. This film as it stands, is a butterfly pinned to wood.

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Me
Guest

It really reminded me of The Passenger in some spots.

Jim McQuaid
Guest

Kurt, two years ago you reviewed "Privilege." Do you have any insight into why Privilege includes several complete scenes that are exact quotes from "Lonely Boy" the doc about Paul Anka? It's always amazed me.

KeithTalent
Guest

The friend I saw this with was bored, but I was strangely riveted by the film. It was very slow and really nothing much happens; long scenes with minimal to no dialogue at all and pretty much zero background information on Clooney's character, but it certainly was gorgeous to watch.

The paranoia of Clooney's character and the tension in those few moments of action (I re-watched The Third Man a shot while ago and the foot chases here made me think of that film) worked for me.

Maybe it had something to do with just seeing Machete, as this was quite the contrast to that, but I liked The American overall.

KeithTalent
Guest

I have to agree. I gave the slight edge to Machete as well; it does everything it tries to do near perfectly. It helped having a great crowd too, everyone was right into it which is awesome in a film like this.

I could see myself throwing on The American on a rainy night alone, when I'm in a particularly contemplative mood, but Machete is the one I would throw on with a bunch of buddies and a case of beer. Good times.

Marina
Guest

I opted to see MACHETE over the long weekend rather than this because it looked like it was sparse on action and hubby is picky about his talkies. I'm disappointed that it doesn't quite make the mark – I was (and am) and huge fan of Corbijn's CONTROL and this definitely looked stunning. It's too bad it's lacking some of the meat. I still hope to catch it on the big screen but am a little less inclined to make a great effort. Sounds like it might be just as good on DVD.

Andrew James
Admin

SHOCKED this film is playing in main stream cinemas. I happened to avoid trailers or clips before seeing this so wasn't quite sure what I was getting into (low scores from "the idiot" critics actually emboldened me). Apparently the trailers are all actiony and very misleading for this very slow burn spy thriller.

I for one loved the minimalism on display here. Not only visually but also aurally and with screenplay. Does Clooney's character ever say more than 4 words in a sentence? Plus the score is beautifully sparse and fits perfectly with the minimal European sites.

I loved how nothing is really said outright; most of the emotion and what the characters are going through must be inferred. Clooney's character is so incredibly deep for a character who never really talks. The camera lingers on people's faces for long moments while they ponder and it gives the viewer time to ponder (what is happening and what the character might be thinking) as well.

Film might make it into my top ten of the year and comparing it in any way to James Bond is unfair and does the film a disservice.

4.5/5

 

Andrew James
Admin

Oh yeah, the action sequences that are here are so believable. Quick, quiet and to the point. Much like the shoot-out in Appaloosa, everything just sort of happens – which is much more like how it would probably be in reality rather than an epic shootout or car chase spanning miles. Loved it.

rot
Guest

Caught up with this, and kind of see where you are coming from Kurt, on the whole I would give it 3.5/5, not quite great, but my God is it gorgeous. This movie is all form, nice double feature with Limits of Control. Would like to revisit on blu-ray. Go watch Control, it is nearly as stunning to look at, but also has a strong story and emotional punch to hang its formalisms on.

Kurt
Guest

Exactly, Rot! Exactly. I still enjoyed The American, it is just that the LIMITS OF CONTROL engaged me a fair bit more….

rot
Guest

all it needed was a black helicopter hovering around 🙂

rot
Guest

curious, I haven't seen Le Samourai, was Limits of Control lifting a lot from it? Was The American?

Jandy Hardesty
Admin

Jarmusch's Le Samourai film is Ghost Dog, right? I personally liked Le Samourai a LOT more than Limits of Control, which I liked okay but it didn't really engage me, as it did you two. Maybe I just need to watch it a few more times, but I was trying to see whatever it is that rot was seeing in it that he doesn't see in Godard, and I couldn't do it. Godard is much more enjoyable to me than Limits of Control was.

rot
Guest

from my review:

Tilda Swinton’s character in the film gives a long bit of exposition about the magic of cinema and how it can be experienced like a dream. Its easy to see that as emblematic of the film at large, which is unabashedly dream-like and rich in cinematic pastiche, but this to me is just one layer among many of this collage effect, as other characters provide their own non-cinematic qualifications for the ‘reality’ that is at stake in the film. To me, it is more about what joins everything together, the idea of aesthetics itself. But unlike the very cerebral approach of a Godard who has tackled this ‘idea’, Jarmusch has opened rather then closed the meanings, has embraced an ambiguity that is inescapable due to the very subjectivity of aesthetic experience. The title may be a clue to this: for whatever limits may be imposed on the semiotics of Jarmusch’s images, they are out of his control as director, he is playing them, arranging them, making something out of nothing but there seems to be a revelatory futility at work that is embraced in the film and that finally accepts the limits, and surrenders the film over to you."

Essentially Godard is didactic, trying to teach you something about cinema or whatever idea he has in his head… Limits of Control is inviting you to revel in the experience of associations the images make. Its not the point to GET it, or get one solution. Something like Alphaville is not enjoyable to me because it is disrupting the flow intentionally to make points about language, about cinema, it feels like a lecture. I haven't seen that many Godard films, and he has made so many that I am sure my perception of Godard does not encompass all he has done, more a tendency that comes up again and again.

Jandy Hardesty
Admin

I disagree that Godard is didactic in that way in all his films. I can see reading Alphaville like that, but Une femme est une femme or Band of Outsiders or Made in USA, or even Breathless are unabashedly playful in the way they layer cinematic reference. I also think they're ambiguous in the same way that you say Limits of Control is ambiguous. Contempt seems to me to be about the loss of a classically orderly way of creating, and though there's a side of Godard that WANTS that order, he also knows it doesn't exist and allows disorder and ambiguity its place – that creates a tension that can be read as didactic, but I don't think it is. I think he tries things out to see what happens when he disrupts the narrative flow, but I don't think he comes to any conclusions based on those experiments.

Sorry for hijacking the review thread, Kurt. 🙂 One day I'm going to do a Godard series and rot and I can fight it out there.

Kurt
Guest

Nope, have at it. Very appropriate for this review. If one thing that Corbijn is attempting to do is reflect the inner state of George Clooney's character with all the exterior shots and cinematic language. Godard or Jarmush would most likely approve.

Jandy Hardesty
Admin

Crisis – that's the word I was trying to think of with Contempt. I can never manage to explain exactly what I mean, but there's some sort of crisis of creativity, of form, of relationship, of modernity and postmodernity, in Contempt that is definitely tense and sometimes hard to watch (it's not playful like Une femme est une femme), but it's also not didactic, because I don't think Godard knows the answer. He knows the questions, and the film itself is him trying to work through it (Pierrot le fou strikes me the same way), but to me, he'd have to know the answer for it to be didactic. BTW, I had to watch Contempt three or four times before I got to like it – now it's one of my favorites. So I'm definitely willing to give Limits of Control the same kind of time, but I haven't yet.

rot
Guest

Like I said, I haven't seen many of Godard's films, the few I have seen piss me off so much. I think Alphaville is a good comparison though because like Limits of Control it is all semiotics, and Alphaville feels layered in a way towards closed meanings, that Limits is not.

I will eventually watch these other Godard, I want to watch all of the Criterion films eventually.

even if he isn't trying for didacticism, the Godard I have seen feels like cerebral experimentation… and I am fond of this sort of thing actually, but with him I feel like he is the kind of cerebral thinker I loathe, the one that is enamored with thought for the sake of thought, and not in higher purpose of some want of knowledge. New Wave as a movement feels more about process than about telling stories, a reaction rather than an action.

rot
Guest

New Wave at its worst is like Pop Art… all concept, no substance. At its best its 400 Blows, not preoccupied with its style, preoccupied rather with the actor at the center of it, allowing his qualities to dictate the motion of the film.

rot
Guest

I am interested in seeing Contempt, though.

Antho42
Guest

"New Wave at its worst is like Pop Art… all concept, no substance. At its best its 400 Blows, not preoccupied with its style, preoccupied rather with the actor at the center of it, allowing his qualities to dictate the motion of the film."

You can say the same thing about any modern, art movement– especially, blockbusters(Transformers).

"To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body. Both go together, they can't be separated."

Jean-Luc Godard

Mike Rot
Member

I agree with that Godard quote but when the content is preoccupied with the 'outside' then it is worth emphasizing the separation. The same goes for Tarantino, if you want to look at his content, what the film is thinking about, it is many times thinking about style, its thinking about film history and how to play off of it, its in conversation with itself. Not surprising, Tarantino started as a huge fan of Godard.

Mike Rot
Member

also regarding 'didactic' quality of Godard, say what you will about his films, but the guy does have a boatload of didactic statements on cinema, if his persona rubs off on his films, or is presumed by me to be there, its not from lack of participation on his part. The French New Wave was, after-all, a movement created by film critics, right?

Jandy Hardesty
Admin

But you can't just take Godard's statements about cinema at face value. He says both "Cinema is truth 24 times a second" and "Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world." So is it truth, or a fraud? "Everything is cinema." So is everything both truth and a fraud? Maybe so, in some ways. But I wouldn't take the stuff he says that seriously.

As far as style goes, I'm much more amenable than you to style-for-style's-sake, and I really enjoy even the superficial, purely stylistic pleasures of Godard's early work. But I do think there's usually something more going on beneath the surface, even if it's more solipsistic and cinema-oriented than you prefer – I think interrogating one's art is valuable even if it doesn't get into deeper, rawer questions of life.

Mike Rot
Member

solipsistic is the perfect word, yes! Its not so much didactic, Alphaville is solipsistic, something for him and his circle of critic friends to fawn over. More art installation than movie. I also have a big problem with Modern art, as Antho touched on above. I have a degree in Fine Art history, so perhaps being over-exposed to it has made me extremely jaded.

If there is no embodied meaning to a work, if its just conceptual, what it is supposed to make you think about, then sure, everything IS cinema. Why I make a distinction is in cinema you can get a refined experience, something has been considered and selected and composed and it ought to be more than a punchline or cans of soup. If you are really interrogating your art, then get in there, get dirty and confess, don't smirk at your audience.

I take it you heard the anger at TIFF over Godard's latest film? He chose not to have subtitles, and so if you didn't speak french, tough. That to me is smirking, and solipsistic.

Mike Rot
Member

that said, admittedly, I do love most of the films of Lars Von Trier, and if ever there was a director smirking at you, it has got to be him. I don't know what it is, but he is the big exception to my tastes… at first I didn't like him much, I am still not much of a fan of his Bjork movie, but since then I really enjoy his take on the world. And I guess maybe that is the difference for me, is he has a take on the world, its not just obtrusive style for its own sake.

Jandy Hardesty
Admin

Yes, and I am planning to see Film Socialisme at AFI next week, though not without trepidation. I've only seen his pre-1967 work, so everything I've said applies to that, and I'm not willing to extend it into his post-67 films. I'm quite willing to believe that Film Socialisme might be a little more than a giant F YOU; we'll see when I see it. But I don't think that's true of his early career.

And I guess I don't have a problem for him making something for "himself and his circle of critic friends." If that's what he wants to make, more power to him. The fact that I happen to enjoy it as well is bonus, but he's under no obligation to make anything that anyone else will like or get anything out of. I don't love all his films that I've seen – he does get too full of himself at times – but the ones that are great are great and move me more than most other films.

Mike Rot
Member

Impulse bought Le Samourai from the Barnes & Noble sale… god help me.

Jonathan
Admin

May the gods bless you. I would watch Le Samourai every day if I had the time.

Jonathan
Admin

Holy smokes. What a film. I need a day or two to reflect and mull the film over, but this should very well make the top-tier of my list this year.

Andrew James
Admin

Nice. Glad to hear it Jonathan. Seems to be a real "love it or hate it" experience for most folks. I loved it as well. I think it will likely be #11 on my top ten of the year. We'll see though – hits DVD next week and anxious to give it another whirl.

rot
Guest

Halfway through Le Samourai, NOT AT ALL what I was expecting. I like how the opening quote sets the context for what you see, he is like a lone tiger in the jungle. I am enjoying it, thought he would be imperviously cool, but he pretty quickly gets pushed around by detectives, gets in gun fights and gets hurt. There is a randomness quality to it I wasn't expecting… Limits of Control is similar but there everything is a safe distance away, it is just a movie.

Jonathan
Admin

I find myself really itching to give this another watch. I've been thinking about it a lot since finishing it the other day. The more I mull it over though, the more I find to love about this film.

As for Le Samourai, it never seems to be for anyone what they initially expected. I'd be interested to hear you extended thoughts on it, Rot.

Andrew James
Admin

Just finished Le Samourai. Loved it! So subtle and quiet but filled to the gills with suspense, suspicion and intrigue. The run around in the subway system was awesome. I see now where The American comes from and why it’s part of my top ten this year. Looking forward to checking out “Army of Shadows.”

Jonathan’s review:
http://www.rowthree.com/2008/01/01/from-the-back-row-le-samourai/

El Nino
Guest

Andrew — Since you like The American, you’ll probably love Le Samourai and Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, in general.

Andrew James
Admin

I actually own the Criterion edition of that film. I’ve been meaning to pop it in, but awesome stuff like Sorcerer’s Apprentice keeps taking up my time. 😉

rot
Guest

I finished Le Samourai, and I will say I liked it but I didn’t love it, I much prefer the cool Parisian underworld of Rififi to it. I do think Alain Delon had serious screen presence though, my God, and it has some great cinematic moments, and an awesome soundtrack.

rot
Guest

oh and yeah The American is definitely riffing off of Le Samourai, without a doubt.

Antho24
Guest

Andrew- Check out Le Cercle Rouge — it’s available in netflix watch instantley.

antho42
Guest

Roger Ebert on Le Cercle Rouge:

Gliding almost without speech down the dawn streets of a wet Paris winter, these men in trench coats and fedoras perform a ballet of crime, hoping to win and fearing to die. Some are cops and some are robbers. To smoke for them is as natural as breathing. They use guns, lies, clout, greed and nerve with the skill of a magician who no longer even thinks about the cards. They share a code of honor which is not about what side of the law they are on, but about how a man must behave to win the respect of those few others who understand the code.

Jean-Pierre Melville watches them with the eye of a concerned god, in his 1970 film “Le Cercle Rouge.” His movie involves an escaped prisoner, a diamond heist, a police manhunt and mob vengeance, but it treats these elements as the magician treats his cards; the cards are insignificant, except as the medium through which he demonstrates his skills.

antho42
Guest

Orlando Bloom is set to play the Alain Delon character Corey in the remake to be directed by Johnnie To. The film is already in pre-production with Bloom learning different martial art techniques to be used in the film. The Red Circle is set to start filming in Hong Kong in 2009. According to IMDb, Chow Yun-fat, Liam Neeson, and Alain Delon are tentative co-stars.

You got to be kidding me. Orlando freaking Bloom. Oh dear… well at least I have some faith in Johnie To

Jandy Stone
Guest

Just finished watching The American. Wow. I wondered if anything might sneak into my top ten at the eleventh hour, and I think it might have. It had me from the opening sequence and I couldn’t look away. 100% my style of film.

I’m choosing to ignore for right now Antho’s mention of a Melville remake with Orlando Bloom in Alain Delon’s role, because that thought is upsetting.

Mike Rot
Member

I impulse bought The American on blu-ray, I already want to rewatch it.

rot
Guest

So rewatched on blu-ray and wow, I am a big fan of this film now… with expectations properly adjusted this film is awesome. Andrew, if you haven’t already try and catch Corbijn’s first film, Control. I believe the Mamo guys said he is doing three films and he is done, and his first two films are solid.

I agree with Andrew about Clooney’s performance in this… it is not your typical award-winning performance, but he does ooze character by just being, its crazy. Also he seems to have de-aged in this after Up in the Air.

rot
Guest

no there is the same amount of grey hair in both films, he definitely lost weight and worked out for The American though and I think Corbijn’s photography must be forgiving, anyone through his lens would probably look gorgeous.

rot
Guest

Clooney should be Bond just once.

Andrew James
Admin

Didn’t hate Control, but wasn’t a huge fan either. I’m not sure why. I guess the story just wasn’t all that intriguing to me like The American is. I liked the style and the performance, but overall I was kind of bored. Still, as far as rock bios good, it’s nice to see one a little different from the norm. I will see his third film in a heartbeat; maybe it will be his masterpiece? Why is he only doing three?

Bob Turnbull
Admin

Depends on the approach…He certainly showed in The American that he can do brooding, so if they wanted to go back to a Dalton-esque Bond, he could do it. Having said that, you know he would play it for fun.

I really liked The American – not quite as much as where rot has ended up with it, but more than Kurt – probably bubbling under my Top 20. After re-watching Shutter Island, I think The American would leap frog over it (not by a lot though). It’s staying with me longer than I expected after I finished it…

Just wanted to mention (after re-reading the whole thread) that Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog riffs quite extensively off Seijun Suzuki’s “Branded To Kill”. I think I’ve mentioned that elsewhere, but I like to take every chance to mention Suzuki.

Jonathan
Guest

I’m still saying that The American is my number two film of the year, just shy of my number one slot. It’s neck and neck.

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