The American

 

 

It’s often fascinating to disentangle the web of cinematic influences in any given film; in the 1950s, a 40-year-old Akira Kurosawa was inspired by the Westerns and cinematic stylings of John Ford. In the 1960s, Sergio Leone was inspired by both the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, enough so that he remade Yojimbo, resetting it in the Old West. In the same decade, Jean-Pierre Melville was also inspired by samurai films, but cast his “samurai” as a super-cool detective. There is a little bit of all of these influences in Anton Corbijn’s second feature-length film, The American. While Corbijn even directly references Sergio Leone, probably because the film itself is set in Italy, the tone and style is much closer to Melville’s take on the modern, Man with No Name/samurai.

It stars George Clooney as an ex-assassin and arms specialist, known as Jack to his contact and Eduardo to the people in Italy, who flees to Castelvecchio, a small rural town in the Abruzzo region of Italy, after he is hunted down by a group of Swedish assassins that forced him to kill his girlfriend. While in Castelvecchio, he’s contacted by Pavel (Johan Leysen) who hires him to build a special weapon for an assassin named Matilda (Thekla Reuten). The weapon is unusually complicated– a mix of a submachine gun with the range of a rifle that includes a noise suppressor– and Jack is especially taxed given his limited resources. While there, he also meets a priest named Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) who, predictably, tries to offer him salvation and solace. He also meets a young brothel prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido) whom he, against his better judgment, begins falling for.

Another influence one could throw into the mix is the espionage-style paranoia of the James Bond films, although The American would be James Bond circa Dr. No rather than the high-tech thrillers that came later. But more important than the paranoia is the sense of isolation that results from it; this is something the Bond films never addressed, with perhaps the exception of On His Majesty’s Secret Service. Corbijn presents Clooney’s Jack as a terribly lonely individual forced into oppressive isolation because of his work and the choices he’s made. Being a professional photographer for 35 years, Corbijn innately understands how to render this isolation through breathtakingly beautiful frames. There is the more traditional method of isolating Clooney to one side of the screen, emphasizing the empty space on the other, but, more subtly, there are also many shots from behind, which accomplish the same aesthetic on a less obvious level.

Even the snow-white landscapes of the opening, set in Sweden, visually establish that isolation, but it also captures the Melville-like cool detachedness of a main character who has (or appears to) ice water in his veins. But here, more so than in Le Samouraï, that placid surface style is meant to stand in contrast to the tumultuous inner world of Clooney’s character. It’s always a tricky thing to try to represent thought process on film, and it definitely takes an actor the caliber of Clooney to pull it off effectively. Clooney has often been called the Cary Grant of this generation, and it’s easy to make comparisons because of the similar personas of the two, but I tend to feel such comparisons underrate Clooney as an actor. He’s always shown a tremendous amount of natural ease, but here he’s even more impressive in his restraint. Given that The American is much more slowly paced than a typical modern blockbuster—mainly because its inspiration lies more in the European mood thrillers—Clooney’s riveting performance was a crucial element in holding viewers’ attention.

While this combination of cool style and isolation may dominate the film, a complementary one of warmth and connection takes over during the scenes that Jack has with Clara. Even in the brothel, the glowing, saturated, deeper it life stands in stark contrast to most of the films light blues, grays, and whites. These scenes are also shot more in close, intimate two shots rather than isolating wide shots. The centerpiece of the film may be the sex scene that comes midway in; on a more superficial level, it’s one of the more sensuous of its kind I’ve seen in a mainstream film in a while, but it also serves as the turning point for both characters. During the scene, Corbijn trains his camera primarily on Clara, observing her reactions to Jack’s anger-filled lovemaking. But when the scene ends on a quiet note of tenderness, we realize that there’s something more between the two than prostitute and John.

It’s apropos that scene is followed by one of Jack working on the gun. Not because of some pseudo-Freudian connections (even though there’s plenty of sexual tension during the scene when Jack is exhibiting the gun to Matilda), but because in Jack’s isolation his craft has filled the void left by his inability to have any human relationships. As Father Benedetto tells him at one point in the film, he has the hands of a craftsman rather than an artist (he had previously told the priest that he was a photographer). Watching him at work, we get the sense that even if he doesn’t have the hands of an artist he has the soul of one, as he can’t help but be extremely sensitive to all the damage his work has done to himself and others.

Yet, even with all these strengths, The American shares many of the same problems I had with Le Samouraï. The biggest issue is that its abundance of cool style ultimately keeps it too distant to work on an emotional level. Although, more than the style forces it to ring emotionally hollow, there is also the shallowness of Clara’s character who is never given that kind of focus and depth of Clooney’s Jack needed to sell their relationship and connection. The screenwriter, Rowan Joffé, waits much too long to establish and develop their relationship, and as good as the sex scene is, its belated appearance is a major detriment. Truly, all of the supporting characters have the same problem as Clara; almost the entire Father Benedetto storyline seems superfluous, and potentially interesting characters like Matilda and Pavel aren’t given enough screen time.

Given the above, it’s not surprising that many of the films’ motifs and devices seem trite and superficial. Particularly, the association of Jack with an endangered butterfly is a banal metaphor that’s as subtle as a brick through a plate glass window. The ending, which predictably closes with a recapitulation of that motif, feels too much like a similar device used to end the Cowboy Bebop anime series. Even the archetypal structure of a man with no name coming to a town and encountering the polar worlds of the prostitute and the priest seems overstated. Corbijn also can’t manage to conjure up much excitement in the action scenes, or dramatic tension in his cinematic allusions (like the Leone-esque exchange of stares in close-up). Really, the film is at its best when it’s creating mood and atmosphere through still silence and magnificently composed frames than when it actually does erupt.

Although, I don’t want to make it sound like no devices in the film work, but the best ones are those that don’t call attention to themselves. One I especially liked is the scene where Father Benedetto is telling Jack that “a priest sees everything,” which cuts to a scene of Jack looking out the window with binoculars, and which was preceded by a scene of Jack walking towards the camera in the foreground with father Benedetto, in the far upper-left-hand background, slightly blurred, watching him. Hitchcock would definitely appreciate the voyeuristic level of these scenes. Corbijn is also good at linking certain ideas through colors, like the red of the brothel cutting to the red of father Benedetto’s car symbolically field with lambs in the back. We should also be appreciated that Corbijn doesn’t overuse the image of the crucifix, or the idea of Jack’s hiding place being a metaphor for Eden/Paradise.

One final flaw is that of the ending, although, to be honest, there simply is no good way to and films like this. The classic tragedy was one in which innately good characters were brought down by one fatal flaw, so it’s always hard to sell tragic endings that occur more by accidental circumstance (Romeo and Juliet has been famously criticized for this), and it’s no better to end with sappy or sentimental uplift. But,evenwith its flaws, The American is an unusually fresh and original take on an age-old cinematic archetype. The cinematography, atmosphere, style and Clooney’s performance are undoubtedly the highlights, and even the lack of emotional substance doesn’t crucially harm the film. Some may balk at the glacial pacing, but being a fan of slower paced, European art films I had no problem with it. Slow pacing only becomes a detriment if the aesthetic brought about by that pacing is lacking, and there is no lack of aesthetic here. If aesthetic doesn’t sell you then Clooney’s riveting performance of a genuinely intriguing character should.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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