Just know you will be well served by not asking why, when, who, or where.

The American

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            The makers of The American clearly decided not to burden the audience with the defining elements of modern movies. They have eliminated dialogue, plot, and backstory and have given us instead a film rich in atmosphere and production. They took a big risk, and they won.

            We learn at the outset that the American (George Clooney) has been ordered to build a task-specific weapon "with the firepower of a machine gun and the range of a rifle" that will fit in a small briefcase. We are not told why or what it will be used for. Neither do we know who employs the American or who is running the agents who deliver his instructions. It would be charitable to assume that in the intelligence game - whether it is played by governments or the underworld - operational details are revealed only on an "eyes only" basis to persons with a "need to know." The audience is not included in that equation. Just know you will be well served by not asking why, when, who, or where.

            The movie starts in Sweden's cold winter where we meet the American as he walks with his companion across a vast frozen lake. We are given an awful shock on that lake. In marvelous contrast, the action quickly shifts to sunny Italy, to an old country village built into a rocky hillside, its parts connected by ancient cobbled stairways and alleys. The village sits in the isolation of a barren countryside. As the American drives his Fiat along the winding roads with a superbly spare score playing in the background, the landscape becomes a main character in the film.

            As to the characters, there really is just one: George Clooney's American, who is known variously, though only occasionally, as Jack or Edward or Mr. Butterfly. He is attended by several beautiful prostitutes - all armed and possibly dangerous - who appear from nowhere to deliver instructions and physical pleasure. Unfortunately, they look confusingly alike, but what counts is that Mr. Butterfly can tell the difference. In a role that asks her to give her all with few words, Violante Placido still manages to become a full character.

            This movie is a study in silence of George Clooney, actor. Forced by his role to erase any trace of the innate charm that makes him such fun to watch, he gives us instead a perfectionist at work, a frightened man, an agent under orders who must grasp and react to every random sound he hears. There is a lot of pondering going on here - by the characters of each other (because they know nothing) and by the audience of the characters (same pickle). When you know nothing, staying in the moment is all you have. And suddenly we realize the conventional elements of plot and dialogue would have been mere distractions to this stone cold character study. What a trick. I loved this movie.


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