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Non-Review Review: The American

The American is a slow-moving introspective film. Director Anton Corbijn seems to be trying to evoke Sergio Leone, with the story of an American hired gun lying low in a small Italian village. Slow-moving and subtle, The American feels quite meditative for most of its runtime, although it does occasionally seem almost comatose. Still, George Clooney makes for a convincing leading man, adding a great deal of depth to an archetype we’ve seen countless times before. While it’s a little too slow for its own good, it’s never less than beautiful and often fascinating.

Beautifully shot...

Corbijn cut his teeth directing music videos for U2, demonstrating a keen eye for beauty and colour. It’s fascinating to consider how many honest-to-goodness film directors have emerged from the school of music videos. While we might mock the stylised touches of film makers like Zack Snyder or Michael Bay, music videos have proved a fertile source of legitimate artistes like David Fincher, Michael Gondry or Spike Jonze. Corbijn established himself with Control, a bio-pic about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis, and The American represents the director’s first real movie away from music. If it’s any indication, we may have another prestigious filmmaker who cut his teeth making music videos.

Italy looks lovely. I saw this from experience, but also from Corbijn’s brilliant use of location. In many ways, the Italian countryside could share top billing with George Clooney, as Corbijn treats his audience to any number of truly beautiful shots. He seems to favour desaturated shots for most of the region, save a small oasis where his lead finds a measure of peace, which evokes the Spaghetti Westerns of old, an intention homage, given the way one extra pauses to sing the praises of Sergio Leone. Even the village itself calls to mind the cinematic landscape of The Godfatherfilms, in particular the village where Vito Carleone was born. Again, the film is so skilfully crafted that it’s hard to dismiss this as a happy coincidence.

Stairway to heaven...

The American is a movie about a hit-man, but it isn’t a hit-man movie, which something the trailers seem to have forgotten. The advertisements sell the movie as something of an older and more cultured Jason Bourne film, which does the film a great injustice. I saw the film after the marketing had died down, but I wonder how much of the early reaction to the film was governed by the misconceptions created by an advertising campaign. It’s a story that happens to feature an assassin as its lead character, but it tends to avoid the more gratuitous tropes that one expects from that type of film. There’s a few scattered action scenes, but they resolve themselves quite quickly, and there’s none of that fancy hand-to-hand combat stuff. Indeed, the eponymous North American manages to kill one adversary with careful and calculated planning rather than careless gunplay.

The film is more focused on the character himself, a quiet individual who is re-evaluating his life, without ever being too flashy or emotional about it. Clooney’s performance sells the film, and the actor manages to turn his sly charm into what appears like a projected persona, allowing the character to hide himself under a sophisticated and engaging exterior. Clooney has that rare quality, that old-school movie-star attitude, the thing that makes him fascinating to watch in almost anything. Hell, I even think his Bruce Wayne (if not his Batman) was one of the better things about Batman & Robin. Coupled with the wonderful sense of atmosphere and mood, Clooney is the best reason to watch the film.

Fatale femme?

That said, there are more than a few moments where the pacing feels off, or like the film is ambling along for the sake of ambling along. There’s a random subplot involving a serial killer that provides one nice sequence, but which feels like it takes up far too much space. Similarly, it seems that the American assassin makes far too many acquaintances in his hideaway, with the film establishing a priest as his confidante and a prostitute as his lover – but it never really seems to juggle the two. The moment that the assassin seems to falling in love, the priest is pretty much dismissed until the climax of the film.

That said, the atmosphere is impressive. In particular, there’s a wonderful sequence set in the labyrinthine streets of the small town at night, as our assassin begins to suspect that there’s someone after him. Corbijn displays a rare skill with atmosphere, creating a palpable sense of dread with a minimum of fuss. The problem is that there are long stretches of the film where there’s really nothing to react to, or nothing to create a rich atmosphere – but the moments where Corbijn gets it right (including a nice picnic by the river) make it all worthwhile.

Just rifle-ing through some old things...

The plot itself is fairly conventional. It’s fairly easy to deduce what’s going to unfold, and who is going to do what, but that’s not a fatal weakness. The film has the same basic structure and plot of a standard assassination thriller, but it goes about things quite differently. We come out of the film knowing a great deal more about the kind of person who does this work than we would out of any other hit-man film, and it’s that relatively unconventional approach that makes the film interesting.

The American isn’t a great film, but it’s a well-made one with a superb leading performance from George Clooney. That the film holds our attention so well for so long, with relatively little unfolding, is a testament to the skill of director Anton Corbijn. It’s a solid second film, but I suspect it’s a sign of greater things to come.

4 Responses

  1. nice review Daz. yeah i liked it too, even though lots didnt. not much happens, but thats kind of the point.
    your first and last captions are great, but then im a sucker for a good pun. or a bad one.

  2. For me, this was to hitman movies what Jarhead was to war films… only a thousand times better. I found it to be like a stripped down Bond/Bourne type film with less thrills and more insight into the lifestyle.

    I’ll watch anything with Clooney in it, and loved this. Definitely liked it more, although I can see how it wouldn’t do it for everyone

    • I liked it, but I did think it was occasionally a bit too slow. But Clooney is excellent and the location is incredible.

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