A Hollywood monster movie with international flair

American moviegoers prefer American movies, according to box-office numbers. But what makes a movie American in an age when film financing and production are more globalized by the day?

"No Such Thing" raises this question in a major way. It's directed by Hal Hartley, a New York-based filmmaker who's explored the American scene in movies such as "Henry Fool" and "Simple Men."

He shot his new picture in faraway Iceland, though, with a cast featuring Canadian actress Sarah Polley and British stars Helen Mirren and Julie Christie, and a production team of Americans and Europeans. Labeling the movie "American" seems simplistic. The dialogue is in English, but the story taps into international languages of myth and history.

The heroine is a journalist (Polley) following the trail of a news team that disappeared while tracking down reports of a mysterious Arctic monster. The creature is real, she discovers, and he's as melancholy as he is mean. Disgusted by his unhappy life – which will go on forever, since he's immortal – he passes time by cursing fate and killing any human who's unlucky enough to cross his path.

The reporter evades his violence, sympathizes with his plight, and encourages him to find an escape from his never-ending trap.

Despite its international pedigree, "No Such Thing" has some distinctly American traits, including an interest in the long history of Hollywood horror films.

Hartley's monster is different from earlier film fiends – he certainly has the foulest language – but he also resembles some of them in important ways. Like the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein monster of the 1930s, for example, he's baffled and enraged by his inability to live comfortably in the world. Like many of the best old-time horror directors, Hartley sees the monster as a kind of tragic hero, worthy of pity as well as fear.

When the film opened at the Cannes film festival last spring, most critics found "No Such Thing" as abominable as the monster it's about, showering it with bad reviews. I disagreed, and I'm pleased that it's found its way to American theaters. Less an American product than an international escapade, it's the kind of pigeonhole-resisting romp that Hollywood too rarely provides.

• Rated R, contains violence and vulgar language.

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