The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010) is one of the few movies in my collection that I have never seen before (it was a gift from my bro-in-law. Thanks!) And while the cover art and advertisements suggest a suspenseful thriller, after viewing I’d actually describe the movie as more of a minimalist drama than an intricate thriller. Let’s just say it was sexier than it was exciting, and more restrained than it was wild. Mirroring these characteristics is the icy melancholic mood of the film, which creates a persistent feeling of isolation, paranoia, and loneliness. Basically, “a place without love.”
All of which is personified by the closed-off protagonist, played here by George Clooney, who is an aging, covert arms dealer looking to retire after one more dangerous assignment. With a leering camera perspective that creates the aura of being followed, Clooney’s character goes about his job in a methodical, deft manner. Along the way, he starts seeing a prostitute (are they this gorgeous in real life?), whom he predictably grows warmer with throughout, despite his distrust and paranoia. He finishes the assignment practically without a hitch, until the final sequences, where all hell breaks loose and an ironic twist of fate is climatically revealed.
One of the inherent problems with this movie, although it’s not a problem so much as it is a characteristic, is the movie’s closed-off nature and prickly tone. The result is a movie that is hard to embrace fully, and a protagonist that is difficult to gather a fair impression of. For example, I’m not sure what Clooney’s character actually does or why he chose to do it. Is he an arm’s dealer? Is he a private contract killer? Is he an undercover government operative? I don’t know. All’s I do know is that it’s a dangerous job and he’s really good at it. Which leads me to wonder if The American is at all a statement regarding the United States’ own foreign policy. If so, it seems to be suggesting that we, the American citizens, are a detached, paranoid, uninterested group of folks when it comes to what we do around the world.
Political quandaries aside, one of the more interesting thematic elements in The American is that Clooney’s character is referred to as “Mr. Butterfly” at least three times. The first utterance reminded me instantly of the movie M. Butterfly (David Cronenberg, 1993), which contains similar themes of betrayal and secrecy. Whether there’s supposed to be or is a direct correlation between the two, I’m not sure. Either way, “Mr. Butterfly” works as a fitting metaphor for Clooney’s character, one that wades in a cocoon-like, closed-off nature, until finally he has the desire to shed that shell and break free. This echoes the sequence during the opening credits, where Clooney’s existence is portrayed as a long dark tunnel with only a shred of light at the end of it. The question is, will he get to the light or will it be too late?