Film director Anton Corbijn spent 35 years as a photographer before he went into movies, but he has a musical sensibility, as well. He has directed music videos and designed the stage for Depeche Mode’s world tours, and his film debut was Control, the story of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis.
Now, his second film has arrived, and it is the work of a visual stylist more than a musician. The American is a Euro-thriller about an assassin named Jack (George Clooney) who is fleeing an attempt on his life in Sweden — the latest locale for cold and soulless mayhem — and runs in Italy for what he hopes is his final job. It’s a film in which everything is cropped: the minimal soundtrack, the minimal dialogue, the dun landscapes of the Abruzzo region, and Clooney’s hairstyle, not to mention his thin muscular body and a nearly expressionless performance that nonetheless conveys his character’s watchfulness and (this is part of the Euro-thing) his spiritual peril.
Yes, The American is one of those. Corbijn is not afraid of silence or stillness, and he frames his actors with artful care, walking straight-faced through the labyrinth of an Italian village, in quiet close-up, or sitting at the edge of the frame, at once alienated and well-armed. Jack is alert but at a remove: You learn it in the opening sequence in Sweden, when he sends his girlfriend to call the police about a sudden death and she never makes it to the phone.
The American, based on the Martin Booth novel A Very Private Gentleman, is a violent story with the pace of an art film. One imagines a Hollywood version filled with helicopters and explosions, but in the calm and empty cafes of Italian villages, the tensions come with a more refined air: Jack’s glance to the side, a knotting of his brows, and you’re on full alert.
Jack is hiding in a place of stucco homes that spill along the side of a hill, with stairways running down to a few stores and unadorned streets. “Above all, don’t make any friends,” his boss (Johan Leysen) tells him, but on the first day Jack is approached by a priest (a beautifully, hoarse performance by veteran Italian actor Paolo Bonacelli) who befriends him. The priest sees something disturbing in Jack, and his concern for his soul — an underlying theme of The American — prompts Clooney to almost smile, a major concession for a character who seems beyond joy.
He also meets Clara (the stunning Violante Placido), a prostitute with whom he develops a close relationship, the prostitutes of small Italian villages apparently having not only hearts of gold but breasts of alabaster and the kind of sexual appetites you mostly find in Italian cinema, come to think of it. She’s more than a friend; she’s also a distraction.
And Jack has a job he can’t be distracted from. As well as being a killer, he’s a skilled gunsmith — he tells people, “I’m no good with machines,” but apparently he means “I’m up to no good with machines” — and he has been contracted to make a sniper’s rifle for the mysterious Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). The scenes of Jack assembling the gun and manufacturing its silencer have the clean pleasures of craftsmanship: It’s always a privilege to watch an artist at work, even if it’s making exploding bullets. Jack seems to lose himself in these tasks; his serenity comes in the manufacture of murder, and when he tells people in the village that he’s a photographer (like Corbijn), it’s not so much a lie as a description of a man who stands away from the world and sizes it up before he shoots it.
We don’t know how Jack became what he is, how he can be so merciless and tender; he’s a character from a Western, like the Sergio Leone film shown on a restaurant TV. He is also interested in butterflies — the women in the film call him Mr. Butterfly — and the things in his world inspire a butterfly interest: beautiful women, intricate guns, survival, the machinery of his own body. Those are the matters of many a George Clooney film (his character in Ocean’s Eleven has them, as well) but in The American, they’re in a cocoon, and we’re never sure what’s going to come out.
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