Call me weird, but I have always liked films about assassins. That fascination goes back to Charles Bronson in The Mechanic (1972), Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal (1973) and Clint Eastwood in The Eiger Sanction (1975).
I’m clearly not the only one fascinated by the topic; there are a surprising number of such films. From the outstanding Léon: The Professional (1994, Jean Reno and Natalie Portman’s film debut) and Grosse Pointe Blank (1997, John Cusack and Minnie Driver) to the sheer goofy and fun Assassins (Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas, Julianne Moore) and Kill Bill (Uma Thurman), something about these movies fascinates us (well, some of us anyway).
I just finished watching another movie about an assassin: Anton Corbijn‘s The American, starring George Clooney as Jack (“Mr. Butterfly). I’m very impressed; this is one of the outstanding ones. It’s been a while since I’ve been so engaged and enthralled by any film, let alone an assassins film. However I can see why many people rejected it (Rotten Tomatoes shows an audience rating of 37% and a critics rating of 65%—clearly a movie for connoisseurs). This is a film that will completely miss some, especially if they are expecting the usual shallow film fare.
It’s not an action film (although it does contain some action scenes), and it’s certainly no comedy. Instead it’s a deeply nuanced, moody, subtle thriller of great visual beauty. It is also a tragedy in the classic sense; the central character is doomed from the beginning, so his fate is preordained. There is no neat happy ending; the movie leaves you sad at the end.
The photography gives us beautiful landscapes, perhaps in contrast to the subject matter. Shots of vast open spaces the give a sense of isolation and the loneliness inherent in the assassin’s profession. Other shots give the sense of a twisted, winding maze, also inherent in the profession and particular to the story’s plot. The small Italian village where Jack finds shelter has narrow, winding, twisted streets. A few shots from high overhead show roads that wind and double back on themselves giving us the sense of double-dealings and betrayal. None of that is accidental or incidental.
Indeed, the cinematography is very much a part of the film’s tone and meaning, not just in the landscapes, but in how scenes are framed. I was struck many times throughout the film by how much is said just by the images. The opening, which takes place in winter in Sweden, may represent the cold, stark heart of the assassin, just as the warm, living Italian countryside may reflect the change of his heart. Indeed, this film is a sub-genre of the assassin genre: the assassin’s last job, the assassin who wants out.
In addition to the visual beauty of the landscapes, three stunningly attractive women inhabit the film. The first, Irina Björklund as Ingrid, we don’t see much of (although we do see rather a lot of her backside in the first scene). She is apparently Jack’s girlfriend, and we no sooner meet her than she is killed… by Jack. This act seals his fate in the narrative, as we learn (if it wasn’t obvious) that she was an innocent bystander. The second, Thekla Reuten as Mathilde, we see more of. She is another assassin, seemingly a client for Jack’s weapon-making skills but ultimately a threat to his existence. The third, Violante Placido as Clara, we see quite a lot of (literally); she is the prostitute who becomes Jack’s love interest.
The “hooker with the heart of gold” aspect might seem cliché or idealized, but in a film as stylized as The American I think it is forgivable and, more importantly, it serves a purpose. Both the assassin and the prostitute live outside of “normal” society, yet both provide a service that, as they say, someone would provide given that there are clients willing to buy. Both professions contain an element of mortal danger (emphasized in the story by mention of recent prostitute killings). And both professions are restricted to their own social circles. And in this film, both the assassin and the prostitute hope to escape their respective professions.
It is a measure of the quality of the writing that the narrative note reminding us of the danger inherent in prostitution isn’t merely raised as a side topic. It’s a key plot point in causing a misunderstanding and dangerous tension between Jack and Clara. It is a measure of the subtlety and intelligence of the film that the actual scene of their confrontation is not in the film. We see only the elements leading up to it and their aftermath.
On the flip side, the viewer can easily put together the newspaper article and Jack’s discovery of Clara’s gun and get the correct answer. That Jack reacts differently is an indicator of his paranoia. That the elements are provided for the viewer is a measure of the film’s fairness.
So in my book this goes down as yet another big win for George Clooney and is in the very good company of Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, Syriana, Solaris, Three Kings, two Coen brothers movies, and a number of others.
He’s also been in many movies that have been pure fun and which I’ve really enjoyed (the Oceans trilogy and Out of Sight (based on the Elmore Leonard novel), for example). Mr. Clooney seems to have a good ability to pick great material (unlike, for example, the sometimes luckless Sandra Bullock).
By the way, tonight’s screening was a double feature, the first of which was Ben Affleck‘s The Town. While The American rates a “wow,” the best rating I can give The Town is an “eh” (which beats a “meh”). It was watchable, but forgettable. I doubt l would watch it again, but I plan to see The American at least once more and would gladly see it more times if sharing it with friends.