An American Assassin in Italy
I can think of few actors better suited to play the title part in a film called The American than the American darling himself, George Clooney. That might sound sarcastic, but really, I can’t think of anybody better. Whether he is a hunky doctor, trying his hardest to play Batman, or staging elaborate robberies with his celebrity buddies, Clooney is always in the minds of moviegoers for his unforgettable charm and charisma. This is why one might consider him being cast as “Mr. Butterfly” a depressed assassin for hire forced to hide out in a small Italian town, a bit of a departure from his usual work. The truth is, it’s likely that anybody who thought this way (like me) was grossly underestimating our good pal, George.
The American begins in the isolated snowy wilderness of Sweden. ‘Jack’, as his current female companion refers to him (he introduces himself as Edward later on), is calm but pensive. The two walk in the beautiful wilderness and when his companion suggests that they go into town to buy supplies, Jack politely refuses to go. Clearly, this guy wants to stay hidden. It doesn’t take long until his preference is denied as footprints in the snow tell Jack that the jig is up, he’s been found. I would love to continue on with how nicely this opening scene plays out, but I won’t for the sake of anyone who has not seen the film. I will tell you though, that we are exposed in this opening scene to director Anton Corbijn’s beautiful framing and shot choices (he was a photographer for thirty-plus years before becoming a film director), as well as the somewhat disturbing realism that accompanies scenes of violence in the film. Needless to say, Mr. Butterfly makes it out of this opening scene, albeit with some complications. He is now forced to come out of hiding only to hide out somewhere else and the audience is forced to ask ourselves “Will Mr. Butterfly ever have the normal life he wants?”
His pursuit of this normal life, one that allows for his ‘friendships’ with women to possibly develop into something more substantial, is met with many a roadblocks along the way. He meticulously constructs a sniper rifle for another assassin while hiding out in the beautiful town of Sulmona, Italy. Here he meets an elderly priest, wise and willing to help, but Mr. Butterfly seems hardly interested in cultivating his spiritual side. He doesn’t mind becoming more acquainted with Clara the prostitute, however, and soon enough finds himself really wanting out of his old life and starting over (no, a successful professional man with a desire to ‘save’ a prostitute is not exactly original, but I think you’ll find this film has a slightly different approach than others).
The visuals in this film are fantastic and I want make a nod again to Corbijn’s composition choices. Some people on the reliable ol’ Internet diss this film because they claim it to be ‘boring’. I am of the opinion, however, that some stories, even those about assassins, don’t need constant action and cuts every 2.5 seconds to be entertaining. Sometimes telling a violent and tense story can be done even more effectively with calm control on the part of the director. This is what Corbijn has and exercises throughout the film. Wide shots of Mr. Butterfly accentuate his isolation just as effectively as the maze-like streets of the small Italian towns emphasize his feeling of being trapped in the life he is trying to escape, where there are always corners to hide behind but no obvious way out.
Back to Clooney’s performance. This has to be one of his quietest roles. Frequently Mr. Butterfly is working away on his sniper rifle or sitting alone in a cafe and says absolutely nothing. Clooney very effectively communicates Mr. Butterfly’s angst and loneliness without saying anything at all, and when the tension builds and he is sure someone is about to ‘take him out’, it’s not music that draws the audience in (though Herbert Grönemeyer’s score is phenomenal), but Clooney’s performance.
In closing, The American is a film that is by all means worth a watch. No, not every critic liked it, nor did every Internet blogger, but I am confident that if you go in knowing what you’re going to get and not expecting elaborate car chases and a reliance on spectacle to entertain, that you will in fact be very entertained, and may even consider this film to be one of your favourites.
Violence with a Story