Thursday, September 2, 2010

The American (2010) – Review

The American is slow, methodical and building in its storytelling – yet thrilling as well. The thrills sneak up, as if the viewer is lulled by mundane human relationships and quiet only to have stark immediacy thrust back into focus. Director Anton Corbijn plays a dangerous game with his narrative. The pacing is deliberately slow, scenes sparse, minute details are everything to understanding his characters, as he does not give the viewer much – though despite the quiet, there is an definite undercurrent of dread – dread of what must happen, of what will happen and of what may happen. Corbijn gives the viewer a film about a man trying to find his place in a world that has become foreign and mostly lost to him, but he yearns to find his way back. The juxtaposition of this gentle story against the violence of his profession, past and future creates this expectation of dread in the viewer, and Corbijn manages it quite well – for those willing to partake. He is able to elicit emotional physical reactions from the audience, not because of cheap cinema tricks, but because he is able to steer the emotional journey of the audience. They care about this man and his redeveloping humanity, but also understand the narrative journey and what must happen. The danger however with Corbijn’s narrative structure and tone is that he will lose viewers not committed to the film. The pacing is too slow for those looking merely for entertainment and not for a piece to be fully engaged in (though, one might say the best films are both utterly entertaining and engaging). This film will play as boring and long to many, being conditioned by the fast-paced high action, low substance films that generally populate premises such as: assassin in hiding fights to stay alive. And that is what is so interesting about this film, like Let the Right One In, it relies more on the characters than it does on the action, thus the action is enhanced due to the emotional connection between viewer and characters. With The American, Corbijn has successfully created a thriller that has the audience on the edge of their seats, but derives tension through drama and character relationships mixed with narrative anticipation rather than the usual (dime-a-dozen) cinematic illusion that appeal to kneejerk reactions rather than true engagement.

On the technical side – director Corbijn and cinematographer Martin Ruhe have made a beautifully shot film, in which each frame is aesthetically pleasing. It is some of the finest work this year. The contrast of color from scene to scene and the overall use of color to link the emotional state of the characters to the viewer amplify the viewer’s core emotional connection to the film. Production designer Mark Digby and costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb add to the beauty of the film through their work. German rock musician Herbert Gronemeyer composes an absorbing score that is both subtle and poignant working quite well with the narrative structure and tone in which Corbijn plays the film. The actors in the film were not given much dialog by Corbijn and screenwriter Rowan Joffe, their performances needed to be deep and yet subtle. George Clooney (serving as a producer too) gives a very fine performance as the lead. He is tempered and in control of his emotions, but to the skill of Clooney, he allows his performance to waver, leaking out minuscule hints of sadness, heartbreak, hope, and love, which play a huge role in the success of the film. Thekla Reuten and Violante Placido both give important and well played performances, both being essential to the success of Clooney’s performance (and I hope they both get more work in British/American cinema in the future), as they dictate much of his emotional state.

The American works best as a character study with thriller overtones, as the film is clearly about the characters and not the details of their lives; but do not be fooled as this film also has wonderfully well done instances of action that will keep the audience in suspense. 8/10

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