September 3, 2010

The Guy With the Butterfly Tattoo

"See that butterfly? You think it's Danaus plexippus, but it's not - it's Pieris rapae!" 

"A butterfly?," my wife wondered aloud as we watched George Clooney's character, Jack, perform his daily calisthenics routine in his cozy flat tucked away in a small Italian village. She was referring to the tattoo on his upper back (although it would have made just as much sense on the small of his back, and been funnier), and while I also noticed the unexplained marking, I was busy trying to determine whether Jack traveled with a pull-up bar or if they are actually standard in century-old Italian dwellings.

Whatever we were focused on while watching Anton Corbijn's The American, it wasn't the plot - such as there is one. The potential for a simmering thriller exists (the film is based on Martin Booth's well-received 1990 novel, "A Very Private Gentleman"), but the on-screen translation is a cliché-ridden and ultimately inconsequential film. Much as it tries to transcend the genre, it still ends up a vanilla "One Last Job" movie where the bank robber/assassin/detective/soldier/criminal plods along as a tortured soul, haunted by a lost love, chased by inept enemies, unable to trust anyone and forced to accept his likely fate - to die either as a martyr or as a ghost. Generally these characters do a good deal of brooding and philosophizing to supporting characters about their life's path.

Problem is, Rowan Joffe's screenplay for The American calls for very little in the way of characters talking and very much in the way of George Clooney just looking depressed. He is the picture of melancholy, sipping espresso alone in cafes, nervously walking and driving with an eye over his shoulder and a hand on his gun, tossing and turning in bed, making safe, emotionless conversation with locals, rubbing his eyes in anguish, and so on. At some point I just had to wonder, "Was this the right guy for the job?".

Clooney's background is in comedy and fast-talking drama, and his unique talent (aside from cutting an impeccable figure in a suit) is his laid back charm, most recently seen in Up in the Air. He's not a brooder by nature, and his sorrowful acting here is obvious and unnatural, in no small part because he's alone on screen for much of the film (at some point Corbijn could have stepped in and directed some meaningful nonverbal acting). When rare interactions with other characters do arise he seems to wake up, but for the majority of the movie Clooney - and the audience - are on autopilot, waiting for some kind of drama to develop under the hazy Italian sun. There are beats of minor suspense here and there, but much of it is contrived (e.g., the silly night chase) and it never progresses to a fulfilling climax.

This wouldn't be a problem, of course, if there were more layers underneath the thin shell of tension. But there aren't - we know almost nothing about Jack outside of a few facial expressions and some cryptic conversations (too many of which are by phone; I began counting the number of words in each exchange and they never surpassed 20 in total). Indeed, he is "A Very Private Gentleman", and even the audience is never allowed into his mind (something done to better effect in a similar film, El Custodio).

To illustrate this lack of character development, consider how much more we can learn simply from the Publisher's Weekly description on the book's page: "...a rural village in southern Italy where he poses as "Signor Farfalla," a quiet artist who paints miniatures of butterflies and has traveled to the area to capture a unique native specimen." In the movie he is instead posing as an architectural photographer, but still obsessed with butterflies, which are symbolically shown throughout the film. How much more sense it would have made - and how much more it may have explained about who he really is - if Joffe had let Jack remain a butterfly artist! Ah, but that would have prevented the meaningless discussion about photography in the film and a throwaway scene where Jack uses a camera.

And for as little as we know about Jack as a professional - we know even less about him as a person. In the book, "the flashbacks into Clark's cold, brutal past are cleverly juxtaposed against his budding romance with young, naive Clara." In the movie there's one obvious flashback that doesn't adequately serve this purpose, and we know virtually nothing about Jack's past relationships with friends, family, or lovers. What are his regrets? His dreams? His fears?

Making things worse was that I never felt Corbijn effectively established the mood of the film. The landscapes and lighting were nice on the eyes (after all, Corbijn is a photographer), but the score distracted me when it was trying to scare me, and the editing didn't keep things moving along efficiently. The one moment which really did seem inspired was, curiously, an extremely long sex scene. It was entirely gratuitous but it was one of the few spots in which you felt Corbijn was actually trying to make some kind of artistic statement, and you couldn't help but be taken in by it, if only because it was eternal.

I've harped on why the mood and character development are so important because so much of The American is spent simply observing Jack and trying to interpret his thoughts and motives. Others might enjoy this challenge, but I found it frustrating and, even worse, occasionally boring. If I'm counting the number of words in conversations, or if I'm wondering how Jack installed the pull-up bar, or why his hands are delicate and silky smooth instead of stained and calloused (despite Father Benedetto's claim of the opposite), or how on earth Clara arrived at the forest clearing at the end of the film, well then I'm not engaged in the right way.

I really wanted to like The American, wanted to appreciate it for it was (a European-style suspense thriller - more thoughts on that) and what it wasn't (a sequel, a remake, etc.). It had intrigue and mystery, but a little too much of both, and surrounding the wrong things.


  1. Serendipity - just got finished posting a review of The American. I think I enjoyed it more than you did - but we touch on similar failings: Clooney's performance and the lack of development of his character. I also noted the sex scene - and the presence of Violante Placido throughout - as the film's major strength - along with the cinematography. As for the atmosphere, it came across vividly for me, but I guess not much happened in that atmosphere. Agreed - the final scene is awkward for a number of reasons, one of the being, "How the hell did Clara get all that way to the river?"

  2. Ha, it the Clara thing was a bad note to end for me, particularly as they'd gone to the effort to present that place as a middle-of-nowhere secret.

    On further reflection today I have to admit that there was some effort to establish Clooney's character - his commitment to Clara (instead of other prostitutes), his rote conversations with the priest, his independence from his boss. But altogether I didn't get a full picture of what made him who he is, and my emotional connection to him suffered because of it.

    If you'll indulge me, I also find the marketing angle and reception for this film at odds. I have just seen the trailer for the first time, which shows a lot of gunplay - matching the poster and almost all of the stills for the film as well. It's clear people are meant to expect a tension-filled thriller with a good deal of action (this excellent article about how movies are marketed is what got me thinking about it).

    Reading a lot reviews now, though, I see that those who are praising it are saying something along the lines of, "If you want an action-packed thriller, this isn't for you. This is a thinking man's art film, an emotional, methodical, well-executed drama".

    Doesn't that go exactly against all of the marketing for the film? It's just odd - asking people to love the film because it's not what they've been specifically conditioned to think it is.

  3. I'm surprised by the cold shoulder The American is getting. I loved it.

    Clooney's character doesn't beg for your sympathy, but he got it anyway.

    The thing about the character for me - and I was thinking about this before we find out how things turn out - is that regardless of whether someone is out to get him or not and regardless of whether they do get him, he's doomed to live his life never being able to trust another human being and always wondering if immediate death is waiting for him just around the corner. That scene where the picnic with the hooker with a heart of gold goes sour was really really sad to me.

    And the finale I found surprisingly moving.

    Great movie.

  4. Picking up where Hokahey leaves on his review, I will say that the scenes featuring Placido (including the picnic) were really strong. That's important because those are the few times that I did feel engaged. If I were to see it again, or if I just would have had more patience the first time, it's possible those few moments would have tided me over. But from the beginning, I wanted more intimacy with Clooney and I never felt like I got it.

    (I wonder how many people have said that last sentence in real life...)

  5. I think part of the trouble with the character is that he's a distant guy. You're not supposed to get inside his head easily. It's a difficult balancing act for the filmmakers, but I think they pulled it off.

  6. I like the film a little bit more than you did, but I can understand your issues. As long as we're on the subject of logical fallacies, I have one to add:

    Why does Jack, who is evidently in a state of constant paranoia, spend most of his time walking through the village's deserted and winding pathways during the middle of the night? It seems the safer play would be to stay huddled up in his dwelling, no?

  7. You and Craig are in good company with a lot of other critics and friends I have who loved it.

    On the subject of the nighttime walks (***SPOILER***), I was outraged by the Swede's lazy taunting and eventual timing of his strike. How many times was Jack walking around completely vulnerable and the guy would just drive by or stare at him. Exactly what was he waiting for?

  8. I think the Swede thought it was only fair for Jack to enjoy a couple of Italian coffees before he striked.

  9. Ha, that's one of only a few possibilities. That guy seemed to be pretty amateur as it was.

    Kinda funny that the dastardly bad guys were The Swedes - how often is that the case?

  10. Daniel - I am right there with you on every point, and I was asking myself about Clooney's suitability for this role after every scene. Some actors can do this broody stuff quite well, but Clooney just looked constipated to me. Watching the Saturday night audience at the multiplex was amusing though - lots of adults out on a date night, obviously expecting a "Bourne"-style action thriller, but getting a somber, half-assed Antonioni knockoff instead. Their bewilderment was palpable.

  11. Hey Pat - welcome back! I've just checked out your new digs and will updated my blogroll accordingly. Sorry to lose you from the Blogger crew...

    Anyway, I'm kind of surprised your audience was that visible uncomfortable with the movie, but expectations are sure to be high on a Saturday night. We saw it on an otherwise completely empty Wednesday night. Incidentally, I saw that the movie had a D- CinemaScore rating, which is just unheard of. People really had a bad impression walking out, much more than I did.

    All signs point to it dying at the box office after just a week, but it's already grossed enough to recoup its budget, and Clooney's sterling reputation is, in my opinion, not in any danger at all.

  12. you idiots!! if you dont know. jack is an ex- special forces operator. he was an 18E which is a weapons specialists. this movie portrays the deadliness and discipline of how our SOCOM works and operates. if you dont know the road to being an operator or just even being in the military having a combat MOS, then dont dog on this film!! and the reason for the whole butterfly thing. when you've seen and done as much stuff as a usual combatant or operator does you try to find something to counter-balance. after seeing so much bad and disgusting things the need to move your attention to some beautiful comes into play. george clooney was an excellent choice for this role. this movie is about explaining a life style. things that happen after you give so much and it comes with a price to have nothing in the end.....except what you find beautiful.

  13. Huh. Well, you've got two acronyms in there that I'm not even familiar with, so that doesn't bode well for me understanding Jack nearly as easily as you did.

  14. Hm, liked the movie very much. I think it was much more about melancholic atmosphere than anything else. The story, the characters, the more you think about the less consistent the whole thing becomes. As mentioned earlier: "How did Clara get down to the river?" "Why does the Swede try to hit Clooney in the least suitable moment?" One could add much more, for example 'Why did Clooney order the weapon parts with" or "Wht is there never police around, even after shot and killed Swedes are left on the street?" and, most importantly of all " Why does an American who wants to be invisible hide in a small Italian town where he is as visible as a fountain in the desert. Disappearing in Rome would make much more sense. "
    But all of that does not matter, as said before, the consistency of the story was probably not key in designing the movie. I believe it was more basic, putting a Melville like plot together, based around a superb playing Clooney, all of that in a beautiful fall winter Italiy countryside, and you have a very nice looking meditation on loneliness and search for love and sense. No need to be too logic.

  15. Nice work - that's a much better case than Anonymous #1 made! Thanks for the comment.


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