The American, 2010.
Directed by Anton Corbijn.
Starring George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, Irina Björklund and Johan Leysen.
Lucky to be alive after his most recent job goes sour, an assassin retreats to a small town in Italy to lie low. Befriending a priest and pursuing a relationship with a local woman, he starts to build a new life for himself but soon discovers it's not that easy to escape his violent past.
The American’s opening scenes are engaging mostly because of Jack’s (George Clooney) distraction. His eyes are constantly staring into some off-screen space: troubled and alert, like a wounded, resigned beast. It must be impossible to hold a conversation with the man. He evidently has more pressing things to think about. Perhaps he left his iron on.
It isn’t long before his quiet paranoia is given a reason. An echoing gunshot interrupts his morning stroll through an isolated, snow-covered field in Sweden. Jack’s paranoia escalated into action and he finally appears comfortable. One need not be suspicious when danger has fully revealed itself.
For Jack is an assassin. The globe-trotting sort with European accented bosses and both ‘friends’ and enemies hidden across the continent. The snowy bloodshed in Sweden is never explained, but its suddenness, and in such tranquillity, heightens the paranoia a little further.
So Jack takes a low-profile holiday in the rural Italian town of Castelvecchio, provided by the aforementioned European accented boss, but still he can’t shake the suspicion. He constantly assesses people in the street and overreacts to the slightest noise. Then he is offered a job. An easy, low-profile one: build a specialised gun for another assassin.
This is where the film begins to find itself. Before here it is near impossible to relate to Jack as a character, given the aggressive way he deals with the Swedish shootout. He’s far too intense to be likeable. But when he begins to build the gun you see a man focused. The paranoia dissipates as the nuts and bolts, spanners and hammers of his work absorb him. Jack is a protagonist of the Hemmingway sort; a practical man doomed by uncontrollable circumstances. Jack is as taken with gun building as Harry Morgan is with fishing.
Jonathan Romney wrote that The American couldn’t decide whether it wants to be a thriller or an existential musing on life. This hinders the film because ultimately, as his argument goes, the two rarely mix well and there is not enough suspense. This could be why The American’s most widespread criticism is that it is boring. But one cannot label a film as simply ‘boring’! We might start calling things plainly ‘nice’ soon after. English teachers would recoil in disgust…
Now I’ve seen many films with a slower pace and even less excitement than The American, and some of those I count amongst my all-time favourites. So why does The American seem to teeter, and often cross, the line of that forbidden word?
Anton Corbijn’s direction is too indulgent to portray its protagonist. Here is a practical man, a Hemmingway man, dressed in drag by Corbijn’s arty inclinations. This suited Corbijn’s previous, debut film perfectly. Control was about a tortured artist, its black and white photography complimenting the characters and story. Such excessiveness can’t possibly frame Jack. There is even a line where Father Benedetto points out that Jack has the hands of a mechanic, not of the photographer he claims to be. If only Corbijn possessed such a mechanic’s restraint.
If only Polanski had got here first, I thought. The Ghost Writer was one of the better films of 2010 precisely because it gave itself to the genre. Suspense, mystery, thrills – atmosphere, atmosphere – undiluted by Corbijn’s (and probably Clooney’s too, for awards season makes an inviting light around this time of the year) more existential agenda.
But Polanski is an auteur, one might argue. He has the same inclinations for artiness as Corbijn. Indeed, but he operates this flair within his genre’s restraints. One only has to watch a scene of Chinatown to realise this.
This is only Corbijn’s second feature. Before his film career, he was a photographer and these roots are evident in every expertly composed frame. And they are undeniably stunning shots, they just work against the character and story they purport to convey.
As the film begins to snowball its tension and pace near the end, the climactic scenes become very effective: a shootout through the catacomb streets of Castelvecchio. The getaway drive echoes the great ending shot of Michael Clayton, another Clooney film, focusing on Jack’s face as the emotions finally begin to seep through. Of regret and anger, of everything that he has done and what he will now miss. For a performance so restrained throughout, a simple punch-punch of the steering wheel utters all.
Unfortunately, this is undone by the film’s awful ending shot, a pan away from the actors to a butterfly taking flight. The butterfly was a motif throughout the film, but in case you missed it, Corbijn forces it into one’s face. Again, a lack of restraint. Consider Polanski’s ending shot from The Ghost Writer. Similarly, a pan away from the characters, but this time to the right and slightly downwards, showing hundreds of scattered white pages littering some murky, cobbled street in London’s back alleyways. That was fittingly nihilistic. The American’s, however, was spectacularly lame.
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