Once Upon a Time in Italy: The American
Posted by Jennine Lanouette on Tuesday, September 14th, 2010
Yea! Hooray! Yippie-eyo-kay-yay! The spaghetti western is back! Well, not the spaghetti western exactly, but . . . but what? The spaghetti spy thriller? The spaghetti assassin film? Whatever. I’m talking about . . . The American.
Despite it’s title, The American is a distinctly un-American film. It has far more resemblance to a European film, especially harkening back to those of the 60s and 70s. As we all know, or we should know if we don’t, European film has its own aesthetic. And it is an aesthetic that is somewhat antithetical to the American action film. Where one is fast and furious, the other is slow and deliberate. Where one is direct and concrete, the other is poetic and nuanced. Where one is saturated and raucous, the other is muted and quiet. Where one zooms along on the surface, the other takes the time to delve into psychological depth. Sadly, the former has been winning out in the international box office for decades now, and the latter has been doggedly trying to find a way to elbow its way into that market share.
The beautiful thing about the spaghetti western was that it managed to achieve an integration of American and European film aesthetics that drew upon the best of both worlds. Despite what some may have said at the time, the Italians were not just doing a cheap imitation of an American winner. They were taking a tried-and-true story context and adapting it to their own style. Quiet, moody, scenes of psychological showdown were punctuated by bursts of action while subtle detail stood in for expansive landscape. Okay, so the dialogue tended to be a bit clunky. That’s what gave them their cheap imitation rep. But ultimately, it didn’t detract from the overall effect. The Europeans had found a way to toil in American territory on their own terms.
The American is not strictly made of spaghetti (i.e., only the locations and actors appear to be Italian) and neither is it a western. But, for my money, it employs the same amalgamation of European and American story and style as the spaghetti western (complete with moments of clunky dialogue). As for its pedigree, it seems to come from a pretty well-balanced mix of European and American creative principles and producers. Maybe that’s it’s secret formula.
Here’s what I especially loved about the film – it didn’t get bogged down in plot. Neither did it stop at character. And, in so doing, it rose to the level of metaphor. Finally! A functional metaphor!
A young friend of mine, having only seen the preview, dismissively summed up the story thus: “Looks like just another Guy-trying-to-give-up-his-wayward-life-but-must-overcome-one-last-obstacle kind of story.” This is, on one level, an apt description because this is the nature of a plot-driven story – it’s all about overcoming external obstacles and conflicts. When Jack takes on one more job, presumably to make one last pile of money to retire on, he is keeping himself engaged with and vulnerable to all the deviant elements that he wants to get away from. He’s trying to have his cake and eat it, too. He then has to learn, through hard experience, that if he’s going to get out of this life, he’s going to have to make a clean break, meaning he can no longer gain income from the dirty money that building weapons brings. But it’s only by prevailing at his game one more time that he can come to that understanding. In this version, he beats the external obstacle, so he can then let go and move on.
But that’s just the plot story. There’s more. The film makes clear at the beginning that Jack’s reason for wanting to stop being a hit man is so he can stop living in isolation. His “associate” Pavel, who he goes to for protection, chastises him for making friends. “You should know better,” says Pavel. Hearing this tells us how badly Jack wants that human connection. Badly enough to engage in a risk that he should know better than to take. This provides a character challenge that helps drive the external events of the film. As he continues his one-foot-in-one-foot-out relationship to this nasty business, is he going to manage not to endanger other innocents simply by associating with them?
He seems to take Pavel’s words to heart when he throws away the cell phone that Pavel gave him and hides out in another town. If he’s not supposed to make friends, then he can’t assume Pavel is his friend either. In his new town, the first person he encounters is a priest. Jack must be broadcasting, through his aura or something, how badly he wants connection and company because the priest zeroes right in on him and Jack readily accepts his invitation to dinner. Well, that’s probably safe enough, the priest being under the protection of God and all. And, who knows, maybe some of that protection will rub off on Jack.
Jack then goes to a prostitute to satisfy his earth-bound need for physical intimacy. Shouldn’t be difficult to keep a prostitute at a careful distance. But – uh oh! – he likes her, as we find out when, returning to the brothel again and learning it’s Clara’s night off, he refuses to take any other. Indeed, the next time he is with her, he makes love to her so ardently that, apparently, she enjoys it. Bad move. Now Clara’s kinda stuck on him, to the point of inviting herself out on a date with him when she runs into him in town. Dining and bedding her outside of the safe container of the brothel triggers his trust issues and he interprets the gun in her purse as evidence of conspiracy, even though it’s a very lady-like .22 caliber, more typical of a woman concerned with self-protection than aggression.
Jack’s trust issues come up again after he tells Pavel that he’s out of the business. Apparently, a part of him still wants to trust Pavel by telling him this, like he wants Pavel’s blessing as he departs. But, objectively speaking, Jack has plenty of reason to assume that Pavel must, therefore, kill him because Jack knows too much about what Pavel does. Like when Jack had to kill his lover because she got a glimpse of the truth of his life. It goes both ways. Jack soon comes around to this conclusion and, having his instinct confirmed by his final confrontation with the “Black Widow” who is Pavel’s messenger, he rushes back to Clara and asks her to go away with him. And we see that he has finally figured out who he can and cannot, or should and should not, trust in order to truly break free of this destructive life. But not soon enough to dodge a fatal bullet, so to speak.
It was when Jack was rushing back to Clara that I got my first glimpse of a potential allegorical layer to this story. I found myself praying to the film’s creators, “Please don’t give this film a happy ending! Please don’t have him dodge the Black Widow’s bullet so that he can go off and be happy with Clara!” See, if it were a purely plot-based film, this triumph would be required. If it were a purely character-based film, this personal redemption and cosmic reward would be, if not required, then highly permissible. But, in this film, either of these choices would have come across as simplistic and shallow, and would have made for a not very satisfying ending. By steering away from them, another, more resonant, option opens up. This is when I excitedly began wondering if there was some metaphorical intention behind the film.
At first, I was disappointed when Jack did “dodge” the Black Widow’s bullet, even if it was through his own strategic thinking (and ruthlessness, I might add). But then I saw that this was just the film playing with me, a little narrative sleight of hand. And a nice touch because it provided an opportunity to once again show Jack’s own killer nature. Besides, to have him gunned down in the street – Just like that! [sound of snapping fingers] – would have been a tad anti-climactic. So we got in one more shoot out and chase scene – always good for building more tension – and then Jack got to pay his cosmic dues. Needless to say, I was elated.
See, with the downer ending, The American gains a metaphorical meaning far greater than just external obstacles and inner conflicts. It is, on the one hand, a story about an assassin and arms maker who wants to get out of the business and have a normal life, but whose history is bound to come back to him. But, within that story, there is also a greater meaning, one that then becomes a lesson to all Americans: Those who trade in weapons cannot, ultimately, escape becoming targets.
While, on the one hand, the film’s minimalist style is the reason why a triumphant or redemptive ending would have appeared simplistic and shallow (not enough tension is built throughout to support those resolutions), it is this same minimalism that substantially contributes to the film’s ability to function on a metaphorical level. The characters are so iconic – the hit man, the priest, the prostitute — they are almost mythic, not in the sense of having grandeur, but in the sense of contributing to a larger meaning.
So how is it that minimalistic, iconic elements manage to elevate the story to greater levels of thematic significance rather than just making it vapid and dull? One way is that they resonate into larger meanings, but those larger meanings also have to go somewhere. The secret, therefore, to having a film transcend its superficial story is in having a thematic progression from beginning to end.
In our identification with the main character, and in the most big picture terms, we begin the film as the victim of a dangerous, relentless and unreasonable adversary. All we want to do is get away from the adversary and have a normal life. What did we do wrong? Why do we deserve this?
But by the end of the film, we learn that we are unwittingly contributing to our own downfall by building the weapon that will destroy us. This means, by extension, that we have also created the adversary who is so determined to do us in. We are responsible for all of it, and we can’t seem to get out of it without continuing to endanger innocent people.
Let’s just take a closer look at some of the elements that resonate beyond the surface of the story: Jack is “the American” of the title, and just about the only American character in the film. He is a former assassin who wants to get out of the business, but has now become a target (his past is coming back at him) which is making it more difficult to transcend his assassin nature (after all, he must now defend himself against the past that is haunting him). Unfortunately, all he knows how to do, besides kill people, is make guns to sell for lots of money. So he’s also kind of economically locked into the business he’s trying to get out of. He takes one more job on the assurance that he doesn’t have to be the one to “pull the trigger,” like somehow that makes a difference.
Jack is wanting to be a better person, but whenever a “friend” finds out about his past, he has to kill them. He does it quite easily and naturally, without a moment’s hesitation, even though he also appears to have some feeling for such friend. Is it possible it has become his nature to destroy? This puts him in a bind when it comes to coming out of his isolation and developing normal relationships. Along the way, he meets a priest, who confronts him with his soul and urges him to come to God, and a prostitute, who turns out not to be the cheap whore of her profession’s reputation, but rather a caring, feeling individual. And then he has this other so-called “friend,” who is at some remove, barely accessible, but is also in a way his boss, sort of a benefactor/protector. Turns out in the end that this “protector” was likely the source of the problem all along (come to think of it, Pavel looks a little Swedish).
Is any of this resonating for you? It does for me, but I don’t want to start further spelling out potential metaphorical meanings cause that tends to have the effect of throwing a wet rag on the imagistic poetry of the thing.
For those who may have left the theater thinking Jack is still alive, I have this to say: Is it really so hard to read the director’s intention behind having the camera pan into the trees? It is a sad comment on our level of viewership if only a very literally described death can have definitive credibility.
You can watch The American on the following Video On Demand websites: