November 11, 2010
Based on the novel A Very Private Gentleman, The American (2010) is a film about a conflicted man whose very existence is increasingly determined by his experience as an anomalous presence in constantly foreign surroundings. Far more interesting and intelligent than the straight-forward crime-drama it is billed as, The American contemplates broader questions surrounding the persistence of history and the importance or significance of national identity through the exploration of an aging assassin’s attempt to come in from the cold.
Just like the proverbial spy, Jack (George Clooney), an assassin and weapons specialist, wants to retire his profession and come in from both the literal and metaphorical cold. Hiding out in a secluded lodge in wintry, snowed in Sweden, Jack attempts to live as a semi-recluse. Jack’s folly of course is in trying to “hide-out” with someone else for, much like the spy, coming in from the cold is never so simple a pursuit. Following a grim end to his idyllic hideaway in Sweden, Jack takes nothing more than his unshakable past and runs with it to a small, warmer town in Italy.
But Italy isn’t exactly an easier location within which to hide. Jack, not “an American”, but “the American” is situated in the film as a signified representative for a nation and, with that, a type of universalising neo-liberalism that doesn’t quite fit with the authentic and historic European locations he attempts to inhabit. His arrival in Castel del Monte is an immediately alienating experience that jars with his distinct and undeniable American culture; he is not fluent in their language and though he tries to use his limited Italian vocabulary to get by it is ultimately the case that the local populace must make most of the effort and use their English language skills to communicate with him; despite being in Italy (where arguably the best coffee in the world is made) he orders “an Americano” when frequenting their cafes and restaurants; religion is both overt and celebrated as part of their culture and community and yet he continues to deny the Catholic church, questioning the very morals of the city’s priest even though his own actions and sins amount to far worse.
His placement within an environment so vastly foreign seems at best counter-intuitive and Jack constantly stands out- a thread that is further signified by the employment of a butterfly motif throughout. The motif itself is a somewhat trite and the metaphor weak but – anomalously so – it operates successfully to further resonate Jack – the American’s – own undeniably anomalous position amongst European cultures and societies.
Beyond Jack’s existence in a physical and cultural geographic space that indicates his difference and signals his alienation, he seems intent upon trying to shake his own identity as “the American” and assume instead one that is more to both his liking and his environment. Although Jack is a weapon’s specialist he constantly claims “I’m no good with machines” and, ironically, though he maintains he has no interest in the past and is concerned only with living for the present, it is precisely his past that prevents him from assimilating in the first place. Finally, he denies religion and confession yet repeatedly seeks counsel from the local priest who, aside from his prostitute/girlfriend, is the closest thing he has to a “friend” in the world.
Here the film contemplates a fascinating theoretical paradox: if a man can’t come in from the cold, how can he survive and adapt to his environment without imposing upon it his own negative attributes? The answer of course is that he cannot. Despite his finest efforts, an individual can no more escape or deny his/her own past than a country can its national identity (informed as it is by history.) Ultimately, the very presence of “the American”, and the universalising neo-liberalism he represents, stains upon the cobbled streets of Castel del Monte both physical and metaphorical stains of blood.
A slow, tense build and a fantastically authentic film for its visual representation of small town Italy, The American is one this year’s finest films and George Clooney is nothing short of brilliant in his measured and considered portrayal of an individual whose desires to escape himself and what he represents are futile.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.