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"American Star" is an art house variant of the familiar story of an old hitman facing his mortality while doing what might be his last job. Filmed on the gobsmackingly gorgeous Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands, it takes a soft-spoken, slowed-down contemplative approach to the material, omitting things whenever it can, rarely depicting any situation in the obvious way, and anchoring itself to a lead performance by Ian McShane that's a great example of how to take a reactive, at times silent character and make his thoughts and emotions legible to the viewer. It's all in the face, especially the eyes. There are are several long closeups of McShane in this film where you feel every feeling as it happens.
What's it about? I've seen "American Star" and I'm still not entirely sure—partly because director Gonzalo López-Gallego, who also edited the movie, and screenwriter Nacho Faerna go long stretches without dropping bits of exposition; but mainly because it's the sort of film where the look and sound and overall energy is what it's really "about," not so much any obviously spelled-out theme.
The film begins with Wilson arriving in Fuerteventura, picking up a rental car and going to a modernist house in the desert, presumably where the target is, but the house is empty, and the arrival of a young woman (Nora Arnezeder) prompts him to leave. He goes into town, where he's staying at a luxury hotel, and behaves like a man on vacation (which is what he tells people who him ask why he's there). He sees a bit of live music (including a couple of performers in a hotel lounge doing an acoustic cover of Europe's "Final Countdown") and gets to know locals, workers and fellow resort guests, including a young boy (Oscar Coleman) who sits on the floor in Wilson's hallway outside of a closed door while his parents argue. Wilson goes out for a drink and meets the same woman he saw in the house, a bartender named Gloria. Gloria will take a liking to Wilson and even bring him home to meet her mother (Fanny Ardant). Wilson and Gloria don't have the kind of relationship you think. When you find out what sort of relationship they're building, it deepens Wilson, and opens up surprising aspects of Gloria's character as well.
"American Star" is a movie about waiting, and not just for Wilson's target to arrive on Fuerteventura. We don't know how old Wilson is, but McShane is 81, and there's dialogue about his character serving in the Falklands war, which happened in 1982: we get the sense that he was no spring chicken even then. But whatever his official vintage, Wilson is an older man waiting on his end. The road behind him is longer than the road ahead. The film's title is the name of a wrecked ship off the coast of the island. Hearing its backstory, Wilson realizes it's only slightly older than he is. The movie presents the ship as a seemingly immovable object that's more fragile than it appears.
The noir genre is typically fatalistic: the characters are headed in a certain direction and their attempts to steer away from the crash rather than into it just make the inevitable impact more devastating. "American Star" slips out of European art house mode and into a film noir groove eventually, giving the project a surprisingly acidic aftertaste, contrasting with the beguiling gentleness, at times wonderment, of much of the story that preceded it.
The worm starts to turn when Wilson runs into Ryan (Adam Nagaitis), the son of a former platoon-mate. Ryan is also a hitman, and it seems like he's there to keep Wilson on track, or perhaps kill Wilson after he's done with the target; we don't know exactly what his deal is, but he's an arrogant yet oddly likable fellow, until the point when he crosses a line with Wilson and you start to loathe him; then things turn around again, as they tend to do in this movie, and you see the younger man as a deluded, pitiable person intoxicated by his own sense of invulnerability, perhaps as Wilson himself was, back in the day.
López-Gallego seems to have one of those rare actor-filmmaker mind-melds happening with McShane (they also worked together on 2012's "The Hollow Point"). McShane's innate charm radiates from Wilson in later scenes where he opens up to the kid and Gloria's mom. He's got a great laugh, and when you hear it, you might wonder about the life that Wilson gave up in order to have this one, which requires him to slink around remote locales in a black suit with a pistol in his pocket, waiting for a chance to murder someone he's never met. But for the most part, this is a performance in the mode of tough guy characters played by actors like Alain Delon or Clint Eastwood, who made the audience come to them.
A character actor for six decades, McShane became a star in his sixties by playing lethal charmers in a string of edgy, brutal films and TV series, including "Sexy Beast," "Deadwood," "John Wick" and "American Gods." McShane is also, in some fundamental way, of the sixties (and the seventies), meaning that he prefers to act in projects full of characters who aren't coded exclusively as good or bad, and in which the storytelling leaves space for viewers to contemplate or argue about what was meant or intended. "American Star" is a work very much in that spirit. Aficionados of the art-house crime flick may be reminded of other well-regarded retro-minded entries of recent decades: "The American," starring George Clooney as a hitman who gets a new lease on life while on assignment, but too late to redeem himself; and the Terence Stamp vehicle "The Limey," which, like this film, has a main character named Wilson.
There's probably a limit to how much a film like this can do with the story it has chosen to tell, and it's possible that the existentially uneasy hitman doing one last job sub-genre has been played out at the plot level for a long time, and can only be repackaged, not reinvented (rather like the "one last job" Westerns that it descended from). Still, this is an unusually intelligent and purposeful movie that doesn't say much, but is full of feeling. López-Gallego has a dancer's sense of rhythm and movement, never changing screen direction or cutting or shifting to another type of shot when you expect him to, but always according to his own peculiar sense of when the timing is right. McShane gives him a center of gravity. It's to the star's credit that, as sinuously confident as the directing and editing always are, some of the most memorable scenes are built around long closeups of the leading man's face.