The American (2010)

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In one scene of The American, Jack (George Clooney) sits in a café and watches a clip of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West: the spectacular entrance of Henry Fonda as he’s about to shoot a boy dead. There’s a similar scene of such ruthlessness at the beginning of Anton Corbijn’s movie, when Jack, after disposing of a sniper sent to kill him, shoots in the back a woman who witnesses the event. Moments before they had been enjoying a drink together in his Swedish chalet. I think it’s this scene that makes or breaks the movie for the viewer: if you love the fact that it disregards a fundamental rule of fiction – making you sympathise with the protagonist – you’ll love it; if you can’t stand the idea of being in the company of a protagonist who has to make some fast and vicious choices to stay alive, then give it a pass.

Corbijn would probably love to claim Leone’s operatic westerns as an inspiration for this movie, and Clooney pulls off the taciturn personality Clint Eastwood played in these movies, but Jean-Pierre Melville (of Le Samouraï and The Red Circle fame) is a better forerunner of what the director tries to accomplish here. Jack is the latest in cinema’s honoured tradition of introspective, reserved, lonely hitmen having a rendezvous with a crisis of consciousness.

After the affair in Sweden, Jack’s associate, Pavel (Johan Leysen), orders him to hide in Castel del Monte, a small Italian city forgotten in the middle of a dreary lunar landscape. There he receives a new assignment; although good at killing, Jack is really a weapons maker, specialized in customized items. A woman called Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) wants him to build a special rifle for a job. Meanwhile his arrival triggers the interest of the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) in him. And to cap it off, Jack gets romantically involved with Clara (Violante Placido), a prostitute.

The American follows a well-known formula down to its predictable finale. But like all human bodies that have an identical skeleton but outwardly look nothing the same, a formula is just a structure that holds together the countless details that shape its individuality. With some ingenuity Corbijn makes a study of identity, dehumanization and morals that isn’t exactly new but still seems fresh enough to merit a viewing.

Although some reviewers have used paranoia to describe Jack, I think it’s more accurate to use paranoia’s healthy cousin: caution. After all, someone is trying to kill him. So he lives in a state of total alertness. When he finds a gun in Clara’s purse or sees her talking with men, we can’t blame him for suspecting of her. When he confuses everyday sounds with gunshots, we have to pity him. He’s been living like this for so long he’s stopped being a person. “I’m no good with machines,” he tells the priest, without realising that he’s become an automaton following a rigid program.

Jack, also calling himself Edward, wants the locals to think he’s someone he’s not. To underscore the theme of deception we hear the song ‘Tu vuò fà l’americano,’ about an Italian who adopts American customs (fans of The Talented Mr. Ripley, another movie about identity, will recognise the song). In these movies love is always the kiss of death. Love makes a man lower his guard, open up his feelings, revaluate his life. Jack can’t get attached to Clara and live a normal life without becoming someone else, without losing his ‘edge,’ as Pavel calls it. We have to love the irony of this type of movie: it’s when the protagonist goes legit that things get bad for him.

Corbijn seems quite confident in the way he wants to make the movie. The American has an identity from start to finish built around silence, sparse action and emotional restraint, in the vein of Melville’s crime dramas. Dialogue is used minimally. Corbijn, a photographer by trade, navigates the viewer mostly through images.

Most people haven’t also noticed that Clooney has given one of the best performances of the year. A film is made of so many intertwined elements that one can’t sometimes see a performance for what it is. Is an actor faking an accent doing a better job than one who doesn’t? Don’t prosthetics sometimes affect our perception of performance? Doesn’t great dialogue make a performance look more memorable (although the reverse is true too)? David Mamet once said something to the effect that a movie doesn’t need dialogue. Clooney here proves he doesn’t anyway. He creates a personality and communicates everything about his character through his eyes and subtle facial expressions. With minimal resources he builds a believable character with a consistent inner existence. If that isn’t acting at its best, I don’t know what acting is.

In a year when most of the best movies had a surplus of twists and action – The Ghost Writer, Inception, Shutter Island – one should be thankful for a good economical film where little happens. Viewers in the mood for a thriller that doubles as a character study, who like a slow pacing that allows them to concentrate on aspects outside the plot like the setting and the elegant audio design, will love The American.

Director: Anton Corbijn
Screenplay: Martin Booth (novel), Rowan Joffe (screenwriter)
Cast: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Johan Leysen, Paolo Bonacelli, Thekla Reuten
Country: USA
Runtime: 105 min

Film Rating: ★★★★½

2 Comments
  1. Chris Knipp says

    I share your admiration for this movie, which unfortunately didn’t fare well critically in the US, somewhat like its austere and almost wholly dismissed cousin, Jarmusch’s ‘The Limits of Control.’ I would add to what you say only that Corbijn is a photographer, but he has made filmmaking his trade too since fine 2007 debut feature and Ian Curtis biopic ‘Control.’

  2. Robin Yacoubian says

    I finally saw this last night. Haunting… beautiful… a great film and I think you have written an equally great review of it.

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