American Star (2024)

American Star Review

American Star

Ian McShane plays a hitman who goes to Fuerteventura, a Canary Island, for what could be his last job. His final target is delayed so he stays on the island and begins to look for some answers, but becomes haunted by a ghostly shipwreck instead.

American Star” is an arthouse version of that old story about an aging assassin facing his own mortality while taking on what might be his final assignment. Set in the breathtakingly beautiful Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands, it’s a slow movie that omits things whenever possible and rarely shows any situation in the most straightforward way. Instead it relies on Ian McShane’s lead performance as a reactive character often silent whose thoughts and feelings should read through his face (especially those eyes) to us: There are at least several long closeups where you feel everything with him.

What’s it about? I’ve seen “American Star” and I’m not completely sure partly because director Gonzalo López-Gallego (who edited the film himself) and screenwriter Nacho Faerna go long stretches without throwing out bits of exposition; but also because this is one of those movies where what it’s really “about” is not so much any theme spelled out clearly, but rather the look and sound and general energy of itself.

It starts with Wilson arriving in Fuerteventura, picking up a rental car and going to a modernist house in the desert presumably where the target resides. But no one’s there … except for maybe us? Because after awhile we start wondering: Where are we? And then Wilson leaves when he sees a young woman (Nora Arnezeder) approach on foot from across an empty field.

He heads into town, where he says he’s staying at a luxury hotel because he looks like every other white European tourist (which is what people who ask him why he’s there take him to be). And then he acts like a man on vacation. He listens to some live music (including an acoustic cover of Europe’s “Final Countdown” performed by a duo in the lounge of his hotel) and talks with locals workers, other guests at the resort. A boy (Oscar Coleman) sits on the hallway floor outside Wilson’s closed door while his parents argue. Wilson goes out for a drink and meets Gloria, a bartender. Gloria will introduce Wilson to her mother (Fanny Ardant), who lives with her. No, Wilson and Gloria aren’t that kind of thing although when you find out what kind of thing they are, it deepens both Wilson and unexpected aspects of Gloria.

But mostly “American Star” is about waiting: not just for Wilson’s target to arrive on Fuerteventura but also just waiting. We don’t know how old Wilson is supposed to be; Ian McShane is 81, and there’s dialogue about his character serving in the Falklands war (1982), so we get the sense that he wasn’t exactly a teenager even then. But no matter how many years we’re supposed to think have passed since that conflict ended, we can tell from looking at McShane’s face that this older man is waiting on his end now. The road behind him was longer than the one ahead even then; now much more so. The ship’s name in “American Star” refers to one that wrecked off this island’s coast; hearing its backstory makes Wilson realize it’s only slightly older than he is himself but also less solid than its bulk implies which maybe speaks volumes?

The noir genre tends to be pessimistic: the characters are on a certain path, and their attempts to swerve into any other than an intersection with tragedy only make the collision more brutal when it arrives. “American Star” eases into film noir rather than European art house mode eventually, which gives the project a shockingly acidic aftertaste; this is in contrast to the rest of its tale, which is beguilingly gentle at times even wondrous.

Things start to go south when Wilson runs into Ryan (Adam Nagaitis), the son of a former platoonmate. Ryan is also a hitman, and it seems like he’s there to keep Wilson on track or perhaps kill Wilson once he’s done with the target; we don’t know what his deal is exactly, but he’s an arrogant yet oddly likable bastard until he crosses a line with Wilson and you hate him; then things turn around again, as they tend to do in this movie, and you see the younger man as a deluded fool buffeted by his own sense of invulnerability maybe just as Wilson was himself, back in the day.

López-Gallego seems to have one of those rare actor-filmmaker mind-melds going on with McShane (they also collaborated on 2012’s “The Hollow Point”). McShane’s natural charm oozes from him in later scenes where he opens up to Gloria’s mom and/or the kid. He has a great laugh, and when you hear it, you might wonder about what kind of life Wilson gave up in order to have this one that requires such waiting sneaking around all these godforsaken places in a black suit with a pistol in his pocket waiting for some stranger’s chance at death. But mostly this is one of those tough-guy characterizations where Alain Delon or Clint Eastwood made you come to them.

A character actor for six decades, McShane became a star in his 60s by playing lethal charmers in a string of edgy, brutal films and TV series (e.g., “Sexy Beast,” “Deadwood,” “John Wick,” “American Gods”). Sixties (and seventies) are also, in some fundamental way, of the ’60s (and the ’70s), meaning that he prefers to act in projects where characters aren’t coded exclusively good or bad, and storytelling leaves plenty of space for viewers to argue about or contemplate what was meant or intended. “American Star” is very much a work in that spirit. Fans 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.

It is likely that a film such as this has a limit in terms of what can be done with the story it chooses to tell, and maybe the plot level for the existentially restless contract killer doing one last job subgenre has been worn out long ago, and can only be repackaged rather than reinvented (like the “one last job” Westerns it descends from). But this is an unusually smart and purposeful movie that doesn’t say much but is very full of feeling. López-Gallego knows his rhythms and moves like a dancer, never changing screen direction or cutting or shifting to another kind of shot when you expect him to, but always when he feels like the timing is right. McShane gives him weight. It’s to the star’s credit that, sinuously confident as the directing and editing always are, some of the most memorable scenes are built around long closeups of his face.

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