Saturday, February 05, 2011

Movie Log: The American

At this point in the 21st century, I thought that we'd all gotten past the idea that Euro-movies had to be dour, depressing exercises in ennui and weltschmertz, something to be endured rather than enjoyed, with frequent close-ups of colored lights playing on the main character's face and barren landscapes even in the middle of highly populated countries. But the memo has not yet reached Anton Corbijn, director of The American, since he's doubled-down on dour and filmed a world that only rarely seems to have more than six people in it.

George Clooney is the title character -- as well as, as far as anyone has been able to tell, the sole reason why this movie got made -- an expatriate named Jack who, we eventually learn, makes high-priced, single-use firearms for very special customers, and has been doing so for some time. To keep the atmosphere as vague and the dialogue as sparse as possible, the viewer will never learn who Jack works for, or even get the slightest hint as to whether they're pure criminals or government agents. (Picture Corbijn giving a Euro-shrug here, as if to ask whether that distinction matters.)

We first see him in snowy Sweden, where trouble finds him -- movies like this would be utterly dull, of course, if trouble didn't find their amoral, emotionally closed-in, isolated protagonists -- and so he heads to Rome and his boss/controller/partner/contact/whatever, Pavel (Johan Leysen). Pavel sends Jack into the mountains of Northern Italy, with a stern warning to make no friends -- which should be pretty easy, since Jack hardly sees any other people for the first two reels of the movie. (Except for those Swedes, of course.)

Jack, in a rare fit of smart self-preservation, holes up in a different picturesque small Italian village than the one Pavel sent him to, and immediately strikes up an acquaintance with the local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who is, I'm afraid, precisely what you would expect from an Italian priest in late middle age in a European movie. The primary cast is soon filled out by Clara (Violante Placido) -- who is, I am very sorry to say, that creakiest of fictional contrivances, the whore who falls in love with her client -- and with Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), a British woman (hinted to be part of MI6) who is Jack's next client.

Now, one would expect that an expert gunsmith would require a workshop full of specialized tools, tuned to the finest discrimination, to work his craft. But a superexpert gunsmith, like Jack, can work his magic with random parts that come via FedEx and some cast-off auto machine-shop tools he borrows from Father Benedetto's secret son, the "car doctor" Fabio. So Jack broods, and builds a gun, and does his inevitable calisthenics, and screws his whore, and has fencing conversations with everyone noted above, as the movie churns through enough celluloid until it's finally time for a big ending.

There is, I'm sorry to say, a major Catholic celebration in the town during that big ending, though Corbijn doesn't make much use of it. But the final ending is just as bleak as any '70s Euro-film, for which he and Clooney can be proud. For the rest of us, thought, it's more than a bit of a snoozy slog, and Corbijn doesn't include as much random nudity as his '70s models to make up for it.

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