The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010)

02Dec10

George Clooney (Jack), Violante Placido (Clara), Irina Björklund (Ingrid). Screenplay by Rowan Joffe. Directed by Anton Corbijn. Rating: 15. Running time: 105 minutes.

“For if we look on men fullgrown, and consider how brittle the frame of our humane body is, and how easie a matter it is, even for the weakest man to kill the strongest, there is no reason why any man trusting to his own strength should conceive himself made by nature above others.” If there were ever anyone to truly take these words from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan to heart, the mysterious ‘Jack’ in The American would be the man. He ‘sleeps’ at night with a gun in his hand and wakes up to the sound of the smallest of noises, aiming at the door instantaneously. He trusts nobody, not even the hooker he often visits who he starts to meet on a personal basis. If you thought Clooney’s last character – Up In The Air‘s Ryan Bingham – seemed isolated, at least he lived around people, despite not knowing them. Jack, in contrast, is observed throughout The American largely alone, working on the production of a specialist rifle in a remote and picturesque Italian village, fearing for his life, suspecting almost everyone.

He’s clearly a wanted man. The opening scene, a manhunt in the snow-laden Swedish countryside, is testament to that. But what we do not know is the reason why he is wanted. Everything we see in The American is predicated on a history which we are not witnesses to, and in line with this minimalist strategy, our characters similarly give little away. Jack is stunningly elusive, speaking little, but, embodied by Clooney, expressing so much that we are unsure how to interpret. Only at the end of the film, in two key sequences, do we learn what has dominated his thoughts for the past two hours, and the strategy of providing us with these revelations so late is a wise one: their impact is greater this way than if we had known them all along.

The most important effect and purpose of this style and structure, however, is its providing of a clarity of mind which allows a pure and rewarding appreciation of the visuals. The scenery and acting can be cherished here without any weighty concerns for underlying plot considerations. By telling us so little we are in fact not imprisoned, but liberated into a state of considering what is laid in front of us with a healthy sense of curiosity. The intrigue is what pulls us forward, but not to the detriment of observing the beauty of the Italian landscape.

It should be clear by now that this is a highly restrained effort from Corbijn. Nothing in this film is overpowering in the slightest. The American fails to wow because it is more interested in inducing quiet appraisal than dropped jaws, and in approaching filmmaking in this way patience is demanded of the audience that reflects the film’s own composure in its development and content. None of this is to deny that the film is excellent; it is. You might not find many exiting the cinema shouting about The American, but you’ll also do well to find someone who is not quietly but significantly impressed.

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