FILM REVIEW: The American (2010)

The American (USA, 2010)
Directed by Anton Corbijn

Starring George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli

The American is Anton Corbijn's difficult second album. Having established his reputation as a rock photographer and video director, his full-length debut Control demonstrated his great talent and potential as a feature filmmaker. The American retains the cool artistic edge of that work while using George Clooney's star power to pull in a mainstream audience. While nothing like as remarkable or original as his debut, it is a very solid and capable effort which should cement his career.After a decade in which the spy genre has been dominated by the Bourne series, The American is a throwback to the more downbeat, introspective thrillers of the 1960s and 1970s. It harks back to a time when leading men dealt with their problems and insecurities not by emptying magazines at faceless bad guys, but by wandering through landscapes and lying low in European villages. The title is deceptive to the point of being irrelevant - had it been made in Italian, it could have been called La Farfalla (The Butterfly), for reasons that will become clear.

It doesn't take long to realise that this is not going to be your typical Bond-style action movie. After a slow romantic opening, Clooney is forced to kill in cold blood two assassins who have been stalking him for reasons unknown. Having done so, he promptly shoots his lover in the head, knowing he must get away and leave no trace. It's certainly not what Bond would do, although it would explain how he manages to get through so many girlfriends.With only Clooney to focus on, the film is left to be carried by his performance. And fortunately for us, it's really good. As he demonstrated in Michael Clayton and to some extent Solaris, Clooney is at his best playing emotionally withdrawn, locked-down characters. He is reaching an age where his looks can still sell a film to the rom-com crowd, but there is enough character in his face to read in subtle emotional shifts during all those long takes. His character is a close cousin of Jack Nicholson's in The Passenger, with Mathilde and Clara standing in for different aspects of Maria Schneider.There are other similarities with Antonioni's masterpiece as well. Both films are about characters who trade identities (in this case Jack pretending to be Edward), a decision which is ultimately their undoing. Both are existential thrillers in which the thrills are largely internalised; they are at their most fundamental about the conflicts of a tormented soul and Man's attempts to escape from Himself. And both are incredibly downbeat, relying on the shut-down nature of the performances and subtle camerawork. The famous penultimate shot in The Passenger, which signifies the passing or escape of Jack Nicholson's spirit, is reflected in the ending of The American, as the camera moves from Clooney slumped over the wheel to following a butterfly as it floats off into the sky.

Although it never comes close to the quality of The Passenger, there are a number of impressive scenes in The American which do its genre justice. The plot is a slow-burning one, with the various events unfolding at the same pace as life in the sleepy Italian town. If nothing else the film deserves credit for having the strength of its convictions by not blowing everything up at the end. It feels long, and it requires patience and concentration, but it is ultimately rewarding.The American is a film which takes pride in precision. It celebrates the level of craft which goes into telling a story and which Clooney employs when assembling a gun. The scenes of him designing and assembling the weapon are constructed like a Swiss watch, with every frame fitting perfectly into place and the various plot developments coming along like different machines on a production line. It's as much a film about the art of constructing a thriller as it is about the plot and characters therein, and it succeeds in leaving you guessing about the extent to which various characters are involved and for what reason. The dialogue is clipped and often clinical; the conversations between Edward and Mathilde have a refreshing absence of small talk, opting for something a great deal more constructive.

The American
is also a visually beautiful film. As he demonstrated amply in Control, Corbijn has a great eye for composition and for marrying light and shadows. The 'action' moments, where Clooney is being hunted through the cobbled backstreets, are reminiscent of Carol Reed's The Third Man in their use of shadow and claustrophobic architecture to create suspense. But he handles the daylight shots just as well, filling the screen with a drained-out but vivid palette which encapsulates Edward's predicament: his desire to blend in and lie low is juxtaposed with new-found passion in his relationship with Clara.Sadly, the visuals are also the first indication of the problems with The American. Although for the most part the film is beautifully shot, it is occasionally over-directed to the point at which it becomes indulgent. We could have done without a lot of the nude scenes between Edward and Clara, in which the screen is filled with enough red to light the whole of Amsterdam. These scenes are where the film wanders very close to the territory of Le Mépris, with the camera lingering for longer than seems necessary, even considering the tone and pace of the film as a whole.The bigger problem with The American, however, is that not a great deal of it is original. There have been dozens of films about spies or secret agents having to lie low in distant villages, or taking on one last job in order that they may leave the service. In addition to the thrillers of Antonioni or Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai, there are many films which focus on the build-up to a mission, the most famous being The Day of the Jackal. This is even referenced directly in the scene where Mathilde tries out the weapon for the first time, with the metal sunflower standing in for the watermelon on which Edward Fox unleashes his exploding bullets.This feeling of overfamiliarity, if not overt cliché, is carried over into the personal dilemmas faced by Clooney's character. Many films of this kind, including those already mentioned, find our character exploring the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds, between the job and his conscience, and ultimately having to choose between the two. The American is almost unashamed in continuing this trend, reducing the conflict to Edward's friendships with a priest and a prostitute, with the former increasingly being marginalised.Once we accept the film as something a lot more hackneyed than we might at first assume, the acid test becomes whether or not Corbijn's creative decision-making is enough to prevent it from either being pretentious or from collapsing under the weight of generic convention. In all, it is a success, with his strong visual style and knack for dialogue carrying us through the dodgier moments. The various twists which surround Edward being betrayed are very well-orchestrated, and like all great thrillers you are made to revisit little details which you dismissed earlier on, which have somehow become key to understanding the mystery. Even if certain elements of the resolution are contrived, there is enough invention or skill at work to prevent us from giving up.The American is an interesting attempt to take a well-worn, cliché-ridden story and update it while paying tribute to the masters of the genre. It cuts the mustard as a film about a man at the end of his tether having an existential crisis and being hunted down by his friends, and the central twist involving the weapon works really well. It's too generic and occasionally too indulgent to be given a clean bill of health. But it is a welcome and refreshing antidote to the many poor rip-offs of Jason Bourne.

Rating: 3.5/5

Verdict: A hackneyed but handsome old-school thriller


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