Okay, so I am madly in love with George Clooney (me and 4 billion other people). Not in the I-want-marry-him sense, but in the I-can-never-ever-give-him-a-bad-review-because-look-at-him-being-all-crinkly-eyed-and-charming sense. And before you accuse me of bias in this largely-positive review, can YOU remember the last time you saw a person pull off a butterfly tattoo, in a completely un-ironic way?
So, George plays a hit man/weapons customizer, who is always on the move. After an assignment gets messy, he decides to lay low in a picturesque little Italian town, waiting for instructions from his boss. He is given a relatively easy assignment of modifying a gun for a customer with very specific requirements, for which he decides to stay in the town and remain out of sight. But having finally stopped running, he begins to form connections with people, with the place itself and faces an existential crisis.
The opening sequence is mind-blowingly awesome in a way only heartache-y movies about contract killers can be. Now I don’t consider it a spoiler if somebody told me what happens in the first 5 minutes of a movie, but hey, if you think it is totally going to ruin the movie for you, skip this para. So, one moment, George is lovingly caressing his girlfriend by a warm fireplace, whispering sweet nothings, and BAM. Some three intruders are dead, including his girlfriend. Yeah, he killed them all. The shift from tender boyfriend to professional assassin is sudden, subtle but you know it. Nothing palpable changes in his demeanor, but it is there.
It is a great concept—a man who has scrupulously kept his professional assassin life separate from everything else. Somewhat vaguely reminiscent of Collateral (2004) starring Tom Cruise, except way better (and does not have Jamie Foxx in it), because Collateral could not decide whether it was a gritty character piece or an action flick. Now, half an hour into The American I knew not to expect any snappy bible verses followed by gruesome murder, but that’s okay. This film is not trying to glorify the allegedly cool life of hit men, nor is it about the really exciting car chases and gun battles. No, it is about the times between all those deadly suspenseful moments, when the assassin has to lay low—an assassin who has been constantly alone and on the move getting a taste of the idea of peace. Of long, halcyon days spent with good company and a bottle of wine by a river side, or chasing butterflies. The good company being a beautiful woman, of course. But like the calm before a storm, what place does such an idyll have in the life of an assassin? The baddies and gangsters are always around the corner, the Boss will have a new assignment. Time to get back on the road, then.
George Clooney was perfect; the ease with which he switches from average Joe to coldblooded assassin and the absorption with which he performs some tasks just takes your breath away. His interaction with the people of the town—his irritation with people who feel fond of him was just right. I was not disappointed by the movie at all. I thought it was impressive because it was so subdued and restrained and let our own fears and insecurities of loneliness do the work, but it ultimately failed to fulfill its potential. It just lost focus and became meandering.
(Also, minor quibble: the butterfly-as-a-metaphor-for-metamorphosis/transition-life-is-so-ephemeral thing is an enormous cliché and as subtle as Michael Bay. Get creative, Hollywood.)
At some level, I guess we’re expected to feel that all of us who come back late from work to our lonely little flats, our sad little dinners with only the television and computer for company are no different from globe-trotting assassins. We let one aspect of our lives consume everything and then one day you wake up to realize there is nothing left except the crushing emptiness.
I think I need a vacation.