Sunday, September 5, 2010
Trials Of An Expat
One of my favorite movies is Fred Zinnemann's 1973 mockumentary The Day Of The Jackal. Based on an acclaimed 1971 novel by Frederick Forsyth, Jackal follows a lone hired shooter in his quiet, methodical quest to assassinate the French President Charles de Gaulle. I call it a mockumentary not only because the story is mostly fictional, but because the film flouts almost every Hollywood convention and is told in a near-documentary style. There is a reporter-like narrator; the film has no musical soundtrack; and there are few camera tricks used. In contrast to other films of the time (think, say, The French Connection)--and especially compared to something modern--The Day Of The Jackal gives a calm, unemotional presentation of a monstrous criminal enterprise. Unexpectedly, it's an exercise not in action but in suspense. And because of this unconventionality, the film feels fresh and effective nearly 40 years later.
I write about this film because I thought of The Day Of The Jackal immediately when I saw the preview for Anton Corbijn's new film The American. The similarities abound--both are quiet films about murder for hire; both involve (mostly) quiet men; both feature the hand-building of specialized, made-to-order guns; both offer a breezy European setting. (And naturally my impressions are not unique: I've noted several other references to Zinnemann's film in the review headlines--though I've tried to avoid actually reading the reviews before seeing the film).
But while Zinnemann turns fresh ground to tell his tale, Corbijn's film feels like a revisit of someone else's ideas, like a class project where students are tasked with telling one story by using the established template from another. Based on the 1990 novel A Very Private Gentleman by British writer Martin Booth, The American tells of the gun maker and assassin-for-hire Jack (George Clooney), who works for a shadowy man named Pavel. Between jobs, Jack finds himself the target of someone else's vengeance (though by exactly what turn of events is not made clear), and so must go on the run from these pursuers. Meanwhile, from his hiding place in the Italian alps he is given another job, this one the designing and building of a gun for someone else's use. Along the way he must figure out who, if anyone, can be trusted; and while dodging his pursuers, he contemplates where his life has got him and where he is likely to end up.
Partly my ennui with the film relative to Jackal is that The American simply doesn't have the singular electric nerve fiber of the former running through its core--the attempted murder of a nation's leader. The American tells a double- or triple-threaded tale, and none of the threads require us to invest emotionally. Sure, it sucks to get shot at; but it sucks much more if we would be pained by the character's assassination. But the very flatness and quietude of Jack's character keeps us at arm's length. Corbijn makes some headway in remedying this deficit as the story progresses, but it's a slow process.
George Clooney has perhaps his tallest acting order to date here, using about 1/4 of his usual emotional palette (and not his best quarter) to show us a pretty grim, closed man. He is very lean for the role--he apparently took quite a bit of weight off his already spare frame--but he's of an age where getting too thin just makes him look old and stringy. This from one of the most beautiful men of our age. And while he's rarely beautiful here (or so it seems to me), yet he's still a bit too striking to plausibly have a career which requires him to disappear in a crowd. For this, he should have traded places with Pavel (Johan Leysen). (Actually, this seems an excellent idea, though it would have deprived the film of its one star and presumably the one thing getting audiences into theaters presently.)
The other actors are mostly excellent: Thekla Reuten as his mysterious client, and Violante Placido as his new friend and eye-opener particularly. Clooney's Jack also spends some time with a small-town priest (Paolo Bonacelli), a man with an excellent face. But--not to nitpick--I did not find this important role as effective as I would have hoped. The idea and function of the character were wonderful, but the performance was to me flat and devoid of the insidious emotional weight needed to push things along.
But overall the film was given enough acting power to succeed, and its failure (in my eyes) must be chalked up to ineffective plotting--the story simply failed to compel me. I could not bring myself to care about a film where I cared for none of its constituent parts. I often bitch about modern films being over-produced and too reliant on gimmickry and flash; but The American is not a film I would pick to demonstrate how much better films made without these Hollywood values can be. I appreciate a film where story is king; but this time I think we need a more compelling story.