Director Anton Corbijn’s The American made decent bank at the box office in September with a $35.6 million domestic rake, and yet it currently sits at a less-than-enticing 38% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. This is doubtless a product of the sly Hollywood marketing machine, which sold this meditative character study as a late-summer Bourne-substitute with megastar George Clooney. Many of you may have fallen victim, but I ask those wounded souls and the newcomers alike to give The American a chance now that you’ve been properly warned. It’s neither flashy nor deeply poetic, but it refreshingly plods along to the beat of its own patient tempo in showing the day-to-day activities of a weary assassin attempting to find solitude. My review of the DVD after the jump.
I’m hesitant to summarize The American’s familiar plot before providing my impressions as I can’t imagine it swaying you to give it a shot, but a review needs context so please stick with me. The film opens with Jack (George Clooney), an aging assassin, enjoying a post-hit vacation in a Swedish lakeside cabin with his lover. Jack is torn from this solace when a sniper on a revenge mission tries to take him and his lady friend out during a stroll, forcing him to murder both the marksman and the woman, now a witness. Jack flies to Rome to meet his gruff employer Pavel (Johan Leysen), who provides him with a job, car and safe house. Always cautiously untrusting, Jack instead drives to a rural town in the mountainous Abruzzo. Jack’s mission is to construct a custom rifle that suits the needs of a young female co-worker, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), but he begins to savor the landscape and relationships he develops with the priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), and a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido). Jack realizes he must choose between happiness and his professional loyalty, as they will never go hand in hand.
While there are enough examples of the “hitman-wanting-out” plot to make it a genre in and of itself, where The American captured my attention was its meticulous eye for detail and calm, beautiful cinematography. Corbijn’s decision to follow Jack’s step-by-step routine-whether it be exercising in the morning or assembling and modifying a rifle with mechanic’s tools in his makeshift workshop-drives the point home that he is a practiced master of his craft better than any action scene could. These stretches of little to no dialogue and gunfire, while a little too frequent, avoid monotony as they contribute to our understanding of Jack’s skill as well as his bitterness towards the isolation his occupation has left him in. Needless to say, Clooney plays the part of the terse badass as well as we’ve come to expect given his equally powerful turns in Michael Clayton and Syriana. The setting doesn’t hurt either; Italy is inherently photogenic, and the frequent wide-shots and lengthy cuts truly do the countryside justice.
Unlike similar films in both pacing and story-like Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control-The American managed to resonate and absorb this viewer without it coming off as pretentious drivel. Corbijn describes his approach to the material as a Leone western, which in hindsight I’d say is an apt description. Go into this knowing it’s a European film through and through-it just so happens to have George Clooney.
A film this focused on imagery would be better served on Blu-Ray, but as it stands I was impressed with the clarity of this 2.35:1 widescreen DVD. The scenery and characters remained clearly defined throughout night and day scenes alike. Likewise, the audio did not have any issues that I could detect. The ambient effects were balanced perfectly with the dialogue, which helps one absorb the serenity as experienced by Jack. I gratefully never had to pick up the remote for a volume readjustment, as I’m sure that would have pulled me out of the hold The American had on me.
The special features are run-of-the-mill. There’s a “Feature Commentary with Director Anton Corbijn” and fyi Anton Corbijn has a relatively thick accent. Next up is a making-of featurette creatively titled “The Making of The American” that is comprised primarily of brief interviews with director Corbijn and behind-the-scenes footage that shows Clooney’s on-set clowning and camaraderie with his crew members. Finally, there is a 5 minute collection of deleted scenes of varying levels of quality that are compiled in bulk for your viewing pleasure.