***½/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B-
starring George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli
screenplay by Rowan Joffe, based on the novel A Very Private Gentlman by Martin Booth
directed by Anton Corbijn
by Walter Chaw Though nothing more than a well-made Jean-Pierre Melville shrine at first glance, Anton Corbijn's lovely The American leaves a surprising amount of aftertaste in a year of film that will probably be remembered for the number of "growers" among its roster of resonant pictures. An unusual take on the monotony of any profession (be it prostitution or engineering to-order weapons for assassins), it's more evidence that George Clooney, with this tribute to Melville, his Kaufman-scripted Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and his Tarkovsky redux Solaris, is quietly becoming a visible, above-the-line champion for smart American genre flicks--fomenting his own little underground Nouvelle Vague with movies that audiences, for the most part, are anxious to dismiss. The American is provocatively self-conscious in the way of its best French antecedents; aware of the shoulders upon which it stands (everything from Le Samourai to Breathless to later stuff like the homegrown Eye of the Needle), it also has the gumption to title itself after the original title for Citizen Kane. In so doing, it announces itself as something like a commentary on how the passionate, bloody carnality at the foundation of the United States has aged into an almost bored functionality in the first decade post-9/11.
Dubbed Mr. Butterfly (Clooney), our chiselled gunsmith whiles away his lonesome hours in the company of doomed women, machining tools, and a pull-up bar wedged in the frame of his bathroom's doorway. Speaking only in cryptic half-sentences and forced, within the opening minutes of the film, to confine his human interactions to prostitutes and fellow killers, Mr. B discovers too late that he's put his trust in a field that traffics in betrayal. A literal and methodical (some would say glacial, but isn't that more to the point?) piece, The American introduces light in the form of impossible Clara (Violante Placido, unbelievably sexy), a whore who resurfaces outside the bordello in a chance meeting that finds her breathing colour, almost literally, into our M. Butterfly's cheeks. It makes sense that the film would revolve around Clara, who's not only the counterpoint to an appropriately fatherly priest (Paolo Bonacelli) but also the completion of the two kinds of sop (church, marriage) most often offered to the heroes of America's New Wave '70s before being brought up against the harsh reminder of the caprice of the day-to-day.
Building to the sort of conclusion that provides no answers in a way that seems more convicted than coy, The American is reliant on coldness and silence. Such is the purity of the Corbijn/Clooney collaboration that the picture's prologue takes place in snow and ice and its central MacGuffin is in the construction of a novel silencer for a uniquely patchwork rifle. Clooney and Russell Crowe may be the only leading men capable of the stoic virility and wounded intelligence required to carry a character given to long stretches of taciturn introspection and sudden, decisive bursts. And The American, with this image of our situation as one at once in amber and in flux, becomes an archetypal portrait of what it means to be a man in a rudderless universe, sure, but moreover what it means to be an American when notions of our greatness have been challenged constantly from within and without. The American suggests that we've lost everything but our desire to be better--and in the end, it lets us decide whether that's good enough.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Lensed in Super35, The American comes to Blu-ray in a digitally immaculate but sufficiently filmic 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. The razor-sharp clarity of the image, maintained even during a sex scene bathed in focus-challenging darkroom-red lightining, is almost unnerving for the amount of craggy surfaces in the film, including George Clooney's face, which looks like it's wrapped in crêpe paper here. Dynamic range is excellent, while the glamorously muted if disappointingly routine teal-and-orange colour palette is zestfully reproduced. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track offers a sterling reproduction of a reserved mix that pierces the moody silence with ear-splitting, gut-punching gunshots (and gunshot fakeouts such as a backfiring engine), keeping us as off-balance and on edge as the Clooney character. Extras include a feature-length commentary from director Anton Corbijn, who talks a lot about the spaghetti-western influence on The American and his kid-in-a-candy-store attempts to mix genre (i.e., American) and European idioms. The first half of this yakker contains notably stronger, more edifying observations than the second, and by the end Corbijn's reduced to narrating the action from his perch, but it's a valiant effort from the Dutch native just the same. Also on board is a six-minute block of five brief "Deleted Scenes" (HD), almost all of which seem to have been cut for spelling out too much--though I did enjoy this elided exchange between Thekla Reuten and Clooney on their mock picnic together:
"I wish everywhere could be this tranquil."
"You'd be out of a job."
Lastly, "Journey to Redemption: The Making of The American" (11 mins., HD) is a fairly standard promotional featurette-cum-making-of that shows Clooney being his usual class cut-up on set despite the project's self-seriousness. Violante Placido wears a shorter hairstyle in her interview segments than she does as Clara but remains fiendishly beautiful. Alliance and Universal distribute The American on identical platters in Canada and the U.S., respectively; we reviewed the former, which comes bundled with a combination DVD/Digital Copy of the film. Originally published: March 3, 2011.