I can breathe again. After being smothered for the last four months by a glut of summer movies filled with car chases, explosions and breaking glass, the fall movie season is upon us. It started with the trip to the theater. I had my window down as the temperature was a refreshing 70 degrees. Once in the theater I was treated to several previews of upcoming movies, all of them serious in theme and all of them looking good. And then the movie started. The fall movie season began and it began with a doozy.
The American stars George Clooney as Jack (Edward to strangers), a sometime hit man, sometime weapons provider for an unknown organization. His only contact through this organization is a man named Pavel, a man he mostly talks to on the phone but a man who is obviously his superior as Jack takes instructions from him without argument.
As the film opens Jack is ambushed while on a romantic sojourn and is instructed by Pavel to go into hiding in a small Italian village. Living the life that he does Jack is constantly paranoid (he often sleeps with his clothes on and has a gun attached to the side of the bed) and decides to go to another town to stay. He works out, watches the lone entry road through binoculars to see if any cars approach, begins an acquaintance with a local priest and walks the town where he frequents a brothel, but only to see Clara, a beautiful prostitute that he will come to know.
Soon Jack is given a new assignment by Pavel who assures him, “This time you don’t even have to pull the trigger.” His assignment, should he choose to accept it, is to assemble a special rifle with machine gun rapidity and a silencer that doesn’t quite silence but dulls the sound and makes the direction of the shot hard to identify. Jack does accept the assignment after meeting with Mathilde, the hit woman, and is soon off to assemble the new weapon. His first stop is a garage mechanic he meets through the priest who allows him cart blanch in his garage and he is off and running.
The film then settles down into a character study of a sad man who lives a lonely life with no friends, especially female (a fact he learns the hard way), and is in a constant state of paranoia. Seeing a man sitting in a car Jack is convinced the man is watching him when, in fact, he is just a man sitting in his car. He prepares the weapon, gets to know Clare better and continues to wait for another ambush.
All of this is told in slow, nuanced scenes well directed by Anton Corbijn, a man whose previous work I am unfamiliar with. Corbijn doesn’t waste a single shot. Some scenes last no more than thirty seconds but give more information then a summer movie would in a five minute action scene. Corbijn demands his audiences attention. He slips in little bits of information that the less attentive viewer will easily miss. A crucial word that reveals the true nature of one character is directed so quietly that you might think it as just another line of dialogue. There are no reaction shots from other characters within the scene. You either catch it or you don’t. This is a well directed film.
Rowan Joffe’s screenplay takes a fascinating look at the life of this man. He is always on the run but never has anywhere to go. We don’t ever get the feeling that he is happy or even content but that he is satisfied with what he does because he is good at what he does and, in this life, sometimes that has to be enough. Only towards the end do we get an idea that Jack wants more out of life but may be looking in all the wrong places for it. Happiness may always elude him but he is alive.
George Clooney continues a terrific run of picking strong film (Michael Clayton, Leatherheads, Burn After Reading, Up In The Air, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Men Who Stare At Goats) giving solid performances in each. Here he is mostly quiet. When he does speak he speaks in brief sentences careful never to reveal too much information but making sure to reveal just enough. Clooney is one of our most interesting actors. He is one of the best at thinking on screen and I personally just love watching an actor act without words and using his eyes. When done properly (as Clooney does here) you can figure out exactly what is on his mind without knowing what he may do about it. His performances are usually quiet but effective and he is even more so here. He may not be recognized at awards time this year but he certainly should be considered.
The American is a most refreshing start to the fall after a loud summer. There is one chase scene here but it is a quick one without a single explosion and has a quick resolution. I smiled throughout this movie because I knew I was in the capable hands of a sure handed script being made by a talented director with a solid lead actor to carry us along. The film is slow moving but so fascinating it isn’t boring for a second. The film leaves open a few questions at the end that I have my own ideas about and isn’t it nice to have a movie we can talk about when it is over?
Let’s hope the fall movie season continues to be as strong as the first film out of the gate. For my money The American is, thus far, the best film of 2010.