Anton Corbijn’s absorbing new thriller The American is based on a novel entitled A Very Private Gentleman which quite aptly sums up its main character Jack (George Clooney). A veteran assassin-for-hire Jack’s life bears none of the trappings that we’ve come to associate with men who kill people for a living. There are no exotic cars or high-tech gadgets no boisterous comrades-in-arms not even a precocious 12-year-old to help pass the time. Exiled to a small town in Italy while he waits for the heat to subside after a job in Sweden gone awry he spends the bulk of his time alone confined to his plain apartment pausing between sets of pushups to peer anxiously out his window where scores of invisible enemies no doubt lurk waiting to strike.
When he does venture out it’s either to pay a visit to Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) a friendly and inquisitive local priest or to enlist the services of Clara (Violante Placido) an enchanting young prostitute. Jack makes for a reluctant social companion talking little and smiling even less and yet his two acquaintances seem inexorably drawn to him. Jack tries to keep them at a distance — he’s learned from experience that relationships can be hazardous to men in his line of work — but after years of allowing professional considerations to trump emotional ones his resistance is no longer as stout as it once was. Having gotten a taste of love he decides he rather likes it — so much in fact that he tells his boss (Johan Leysen) that he wants out of the death-delivery business for good as soon as he completes his latest assignment: the construction of a highly specialized firearm for a beautiful and mysterious would-be assassin (Thekla Reuten). But exiting such a profession is never a straightforward task especially when there are angry Swedes vying for one’s scalp.
Director Corbijn shuns much of the conventions of modern thrillers in The American employing a style as spartan as his protagonist’s. Though the film contains several references — both overt and implied — to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone it might be said to have more in common with 1992's Unforgiven Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed deconstruction of the well-worn genre. Corbijn prefers long static shots to the quick-cut shaky-cam chaos of the Bourne films and their analogues and his muted aesthetic makes even Italy’s scenic countryside seem a bit drab. There are no high-energy pop songs to be found on the soundtrack only Herbert Gronemeyer’s haunting piano-heavy score which Corbijn employs sparingly. Instead pervasive in The American is a kind of unnerving quiet that effectively underscores the film’s most potent scenes. How frightful a single gunshot can be when bracketed by near-complete silence.
Clooney is characteristically superb as the paranoid tormented Jack a role that calls for a tremendous degree of subtlety if not range. Corbijn tasks him along with co-stars Bonacelli and Placido to carry a determinedly minimalist film that boasts no fancy tricks up its sleeve and they deliver admirably. Audiences who go to see The American expecting a conventional Hollywood spy thriller will no doubt be disappointed to find out they’ve stumbled into an art-house film — and an unrelentingly grim one at that — but those seeking relief from the inanity and bombast of the summer movie season will be pleasantly surprised.
A “bedtime story” is a fairly succinct way to describe Lady. Of course a bedtime story being told by M. Night Shyamalan can go into any number of weird and wild directions. The writer/director says the idea for Lady was based on a story he’d told his kids which began with “Did you know that someone lives under our pool?” and revolves around Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) a lowly superintendent for an apartment building who inadvertently finds Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) a mysterious nymph-like “narf ” living in the pool. She’s there to complete a task and now that it’s done she needs to go home back to the Blue World. But that’s easier said than done. She only has a small window of opportunity and apparently there’s a ferocious beast called a “scrunt” lurking in the grass around the pool waiting to kill her if she tries to leave. Now Cleveland and a few of the other tenants—who find themselves intricately tied to Story’s plight—must help her escape to freedom. Thank god for Sideways. Without it Giamatti would have gone on playing under the radar without the recognition—and juicier parts—he deserves. He is truly a wonder as Cleveland a sad little man with a stutter who is quietly trying to hide from a tragic past. It’s only when Story comes into his life does he face his personal tragedy and learn to live again. Howard on the other hand who wowed most of us with her stunning performance in The Village doesn’t have nearly as much to work with as the pale water nymph. The mystical character is fairly one note—befuddled and cheerless. But the rest of the apartment tenants shine: Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) as a single dad who has a penchant for crossword puzzles; Freddy Rodriguez (HBO’s Six Feet Under) as a weight builder who only lifts weights on one side of his body; Bob Balaban (A Mighty Wind) as a pompous film critic (and as a critic I’m not at all offended when he gets his comeuppances); Cindy Cheung as a Korean college student who is key in telling the epic bedtime story; Sarita Choudhury (She Hate Me) as a quippy young woman looking for her mission in life and Shyamalan himself as her brother the person Story is meant to inspire to write something extraordinary. There’s never a dull moment with this crew around. In a way M. Night Shyamalan has become his own worst enemy having to live up to this reputation as a master of suspense and surprise twists. His last effort The Village left many of his fans feeling unsatisfied—and unfortunately he may alienate more with Lady in the Water. But the fact of the matter is he is still one of Hollywood's more brilliant minds on par with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for originality who has an innate talent for crafting ingenious stories filled with genuine human emotions. So maybe this time around he’s made a movie more for those most ardent of his fans who simply revel in the way his mind works no matter how incomprehensible and frivolous it may seem. So what? The diehards might feel compelled to defend Shyamalan’s choices with Lady—how he has come up with an entire universe where things like “scrunts” and the “Tartutic” (simian-like creatures who form an invincible force that maintains law and order in the Blue World) and “Madam Narfs” interact with humans in the real world. If the story actually took place in the Blue World then maybe it’d be easier to swallow. But that’s sort of the genius of Shyamalan. It’s as if with Lady in the Water he’s crafted a child-like movie for those adults who remember being told wildly creative bedtime stories who then in turn tell the stories to their kids.