' Cinema Romantico: The American

Monday, September 13, 2010

The American

"It's like you can't stop thinking about something." This is what one character says to George Clooney's "American", an assassin - well, kind of - on assignment in of those scenic European locales engulfed with endless cobblestone streets that are forever empty except for one ominous man following another ominous man until one of the ominous men needs other people present so he can disappear among them at which point other people magically materialize. This particular line is a perfect summation of Clooney's Thoughtfully Stoic Face, a Face which belongs in the panthenon of stellar cinematic male faces. The Humphrey Bogart "I Got You All Figured" Face. The Clint Eastwood Squinting Face. And, of course, The Bruce Willis "It's going to be a pain in the ass for me to do this but I couldn't live with myself if I didn't" Face (coinage: Roger Ebert).

The George Clooney Thoughtfully Stoic Face is not a stare so much as a gaze, expressionless, typically on a cool, gray day, his hands in his pockets, ideally placed alongside a body of water, his lips twitching as if he is chewing on some incredible internal dialogue, likely centered around painful regrets and events of the past. He employed this face again and again in "Michael Clatyon" (not that he's a one tricky pony, not by any means, because he can also mug with the best of 'em - like "Intolerable Cruelty" - and flash extreme wattage smiles - like "Out of Sight") and his Thoughtfully Stoic Face in "The American" is really all the depth of character he needs.

Directed by Anton Corbijn with a screenplay adapted by Rowan Joffe from Martin Booth's novel "The American" is decidedly bare bones storytelling. It opens in the middle of nowhere in snowy Sweden where we find Clooney and a lithe beauty before a roaring fire and the Thoughtfully Stoic Face already firmly in place. What follows is heart-stopping, and shall not be revealed here, and moves on to a remote Italian town where his Handler (that is what they're called, right?) tasks him with the job of assembling a high-tech, foolproof rifle for the Anna Chapman-esque Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) which is apparently intended for some sort of assassination, though the film never says. This is the greatest strength of "The American" - a refusal to say.

So often "The American" simply watches The American at work. Rarely does he say anything and even when he does say something he is not giving much of anything away. Even in his occassional conversations with a local priest he reveals very, very little, the subtext meant to illuminate the Bigger Picture more than the Past. There is that opening sequence, yes, but this is more to establish that certain people wanted The American dead. Expository Flashbacks are nowhere to be found. All the audience gets is the Thoughtfully Stoic Face, and this tells us everything we need to know.

Inevitably The American will find love, or some form of it, with a compassionate prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido). This development is perhaps necessary but feels rushed. The American seems obligated to fall in love to allow details to play out as they must. Yet, to its credit, even as those details play out the film's volume remains resolutely reasonable, ignoring showmanship and just showing, just showing The American doing that which is necessary until there is no more to show.

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