By Scott Martin
The American, USA, 2010
This is a film that exists nervously in the pits of our stomachs. Director Anton Corbijn knows the value of undue paranoia and cleverly exploits his characters’ emotional states, birthing a labyrinth of intrigue and questionable motives. Butterflies are present throughout the entire film, existing as both a motif and symbolism for our lead character’s life. He has a butterfly tattoo on his hand; he falls asleep reading a book regarding butterflies. People begin to know him by this trademark. In fact, it’s one of only a few truths we have about him: he’s interested in butterflies, he kills people for a living, and his weakness (like any classic movie character) is love, and in a film as patient and caring as this one, we’re afforded the time to focus on all of these truths.
The story itself is fairly simple: an assassin hides in Italy while conducting his last assignment. He is given a task by his boss, Pavel (Johan Leysen), to assist another assassin with a weapons exchange. He builds her a gun. During his stay, he befriends a priest and a prostitute. The dynamic in all of these relationships is the existence of sin. Despite the warm world that Corbijn creates for us, there is an underlying sense of dread throughout the project. He assigns a color palette to the film from the first frame, using warm earth tones to put his audience at ease. Our prostitute is given her own opposing colors, and by the end we don’t know which spectra to trust. It’s the understanding of small detail that Corbijn shows that is the genuine pay-off for his audience, if we pay close attention.
Our main performance, and the only one of any real consequence, is flawless. George Clooney plays our silent soldier, existing only to do his job, but finding solace in the brief, forbidden fruits of his life; this solace is, however, just as brief. He loves women, yet insists on pushing his loved ones away. His job is dangerous and he doesn’t want anyone else to get hurt. We’re introduced to him at a cottage where an attempt is made on his life, and he has to kill the woman he loves. It’s the key to this character, and we’re given it very early on for a specific reason. Corbijn wastes no time in setting up the psyche of his lead. Ergo, the entire film; note for note, every moment has a purpose.
It’s the best Steven Soderbergh movie that Soderbergh never made, and in the same respect, its genre-bending attitude and time-traveling technical aspects draw many comparisons to Soderbergh’s work. The Japanese influence over the pacing, and the ’60s influence over the execution of the film, make this a complete feast for film students. Many discussions can be had on the meaning and delivery of “Mr. Butterfly,” and a debate can be made over where the film is influenced by its setting, or if the Italian air hanging over the film was intended pre-script. Regardless, the questions are there, and I think they’re begging to be answered. It’s an extraordinary testament to the art of film today, a clever, well thought-out spy thriller with more infusions than your average fruit juice, gifted to audiences more used to American horror remakes and Michael Bay films.
If the film walks away with any notice, surely it must be for its clue-dropping cinematography by Martin Ruhe. Filmed in Super 35, we’re given a special view of the Italian village in which our hero hides, and a subtle homage to the style and atmosphere of classic spy films; shades of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968, remade in 1999) are plenty. The landscapes are beautifully captured and the framing is precise and definite; expertly crafted work. Ruhe never fails to impress with his understanding and manipulation of the world around him. The alarmingly extrusive score by Herbert Gronemeyer is pointed and direct without ever getting in the way; it exists only to help paint the picture, and the entire film feels like artwork.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com