Thursday, 14 October 2010


NOTE: This review contains serious spoilers, so if you are intending to see the movie and don't want to know where it tries to go, don't read beyond the first three paragraphs...

It appears that all big-time actors need to play a hit man (cf Cruise, Tom) and it may be a corollary to that idea that all arty directors need to make a sombre crime drama. There are worse things, as anyone who suffered through the mockney gangster cycle can attest, but if, with The American, which opens at the London Film Festival Saturday and will go into release later, Anton Corbijn and George Clooney have both gotten their wish, the result is a mish-mash of hommage and cliche which seems to have fallen between two critical stools: in America there isn't enough action for the film to make sense, in Europe there is too much action, in the sense that the cliche-driven story appears to be too confusing for them to make sense of it. I'm not sure why, because, although it is ultimately an immensely unsatisfying movie, shot through with more holes than Clooney's victims, it's also interesting visually, offers Clooney's and some other performances, and plays with some of the tropes of the genre with at least some seriousness. Or you can simply ogle Violante Placido, as the director seems to do.

Although it's based on Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman, screenwriter Rowan Joffe seems to have signposted it with obvious elements drawn from gangster movies and westerns (that Once Upon The Time In The West is seen on the TV is neither coincidental nor subtle) and only plays with them to occasionally soften them for the benefit of Clooney's Jack, which as we shall see is unconvincing. Meanwhile the plot's ultimate silliness is exaggerated by small details that don't work (her insistance on ordering a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, in Abruzzo, but not specifying which of the hundreds available) and which remind us that it's just a way to get Clooney to the resolution. At one point the friendly priest says to Clooney, 'you Americans, you think you can escape history,' but that doesn't appear to apply to filmmakers.

That resolution reinforces the sense that the real influence this film draws upon is Paolo Sorrentino's marvelous 2004 film, The Consequences Of Love, which also played at the London Film Festival, and which featured Toni Servillo as a man confined to a Swiss hotel as a Mafia go-between, whose life changes when he begins a relationship with the hotel barmaid. The parallels with the quietness of a closed-down man coming out of himself are too close to miss, even without a sniper sight.

Clooney plays a big-time hit-man apparently souring on the business, especially when he's 'forced' to kill his Swedish girl-friend in the midst of a Stieg Larsson idyll. Someone's out to get him, and he retreats to Italy, leaving bodies behind, taking his gun, and apparently attracting no attention even when he appears to be the only person on his getaway ferry. In Italy his contact, Pavel, Terrance Stamp as played by Johan Leysen, persuades him to do 'one last job', and right away you realise that the story options are limited. That this last job involves not shooting anyone, but merely constructing a weapon for someone else, suggests where the story is going to go, as he creates the means of his own destruction, and sure enough, it goes there.

Pavel sends Clooney to a small village in Abruzzo, where Clooney drives around because that's what happened in Antonioni's Passenger, which was also about an America in a strange environment, though Jack Nicholson was only adopting a hit-man's identity, and Maria Schneider was, well, Maria Schneider. Clooney then realises that he sticks out like, uh, an American, Clooney ups stakes for another small village where he, uh, sticks out like an American. So it goes. There he rents a cottage that conveniently has an industrial strength vice bolted to its kitchen table, and meets a priest, Father Benedetto (benediction, coming to an end, you get it?) so philosophical yet flawed you wonder if the hit man is aiming at creating some weapon of Mass destruction. Luckily, said priest has an illegitimate son whose garage provides the necessary materiel for Clooney's gun (and what it doesn't can be sent by fedex, presumeably from the same Acme company that provided Wile E Coyote with his weapons). So far so good.

Corbijn makes a lot of this visually interesting, especially when he uses aerials that gives a sort of of Gursky sense of individuals being lost in a wider pattern beyond their control. Sadly, Google Earth has rendered some of those images redundant, taking away their power, but still the mountainous landscape and twisting roads make the idea work. There is also the stunning landscape provided by Placido, who's the daughter of the actor Michele Placido, as Clara, the local whore with the heart of gold who can't help falling in love with this hit man because, after all, he is George Clooney. She appears to be auditioning for producers the world over as she channels her inner Maria Schneider, and Corbijn rarely misses a chance to expose her body parts as if they were the fleshly equivalent of the gun Clooney is constructing. If there is a metaphor lost in there I've missed it. Or maybe she is the temptation to which Father Benedetto (nicely played by Paolo Bonacelli) has succumbed.

Clooney is making the weapon for a Belgian woman, Mathilde (Thekla Rueten) who shoots almost as well as Clooney and whose motivations remain shadowy (unless you've figured out where this all is going, which you should have). The mysterious assassins who tried to kill him in Sweden return, and again he leaves the body and takes the gun, and no one seems to make any connections. And finally, having been suspicious of a whore who'd offer him real affection, Clooney decides to fall in love with his hooker, and also decides to get out (yes, we thought he'd already decided that, since that's what 'one last job' means) and that means, of course, that Pavel will betray him and have him killed. Since the implication is that it is Pavel who's been orchestrating the previous attempts, this may be redundant, but assuming that he's only just concluded the kinder, gentler Clooney is a liabilty, it makes his next actions very obvious (to everyone except the art-housers).

Clooney, of course, figures it out, and rigs the gun (indicated in a brief shot whose meaning is hammered home to anyone familiar with the genre, but appears to have been too subtle by half, which says more about audiences these days than anything else) to blow up in Mathilde's face, but in a shootout with Pavel he suffers the standard at-first-unseen-but-fatal wound, and dies just as he gets to the idyllic picnic spot where he had come to realise Clara (clear, if you're unclear) is his true love.

The problem with the endgame is basically the inability to leave the cliches alone. We've already seen feelings from Clooney (his expression when he shoots his Swedish girlfriend) and now, as he drives away with what anyone who's ever seen a western knows is his fatal wound, he pounds the steering wheel in frustration. It's as if playing with gray hair and lonely exercise has created a new soul for both actor and killer. This is Mel Gibson as Richard Stark's Parker, unless we are to believe that love has rendered him soppy all of a sudden. We know, as Father Benedetto did, that Americans may think they can escape history, but movie hitmen can't. When he gets to the picnic spot where he and Placido are to meet, and this time she isn't wearing her hooker-heaven sunsuit, she runs to the car screaming, and as Clooney's head hits the horn, her screams continue. This shows a lack of subtlety, but then the camera moves up, through the tree tops, giving us a final shot of the sky, and eternal freedom (or nothingness). What this does is render all those previous aerials meaningless: the last shot should have been another from above, with Clooney, his car, and his love all disappearing into the Abruzzo landscape. But the ending as is seems more like The Passenger, and maybe that's the signpost Corbijn and Clooney were after.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Great review.