For the first half hour or so of Anton Corbijn’s (Control, 2007) new picture The American, I truly thought I was in for something special. Opening in a snow-covered Sweden with George Clooney’s hitman Jack (or Edward) ruthlessly executing his girlfriend for witnessing an attempt on his life, the tone is set from the start. The creeping camera and near silence draw attention to a beautifully composed frame and mise-en-scene, punctured by a startling violence that signals a real departure in character for the usually predictable Clooney. The extended silences as we watch Jack/Edward (Jedward?) preparing for the hitman movie staple “last job”, place the film firmly in the mode of American thrillers of the 1970s, the likes of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite (1975), even Michael Winner’s The Mechanic (1972), themselves emulative of the post new-wave work of French filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Melville (especially Le Samourai, 1967).
Possibly the best looking American film of the year, Martin Ruhe’s lighting and cinematography combined with Corbijn’s willingness to hold a shot and create character through action rather than dialogue elevate the craftsmanship higher than Rowan Joffe’s script perhaps deserves.
After fleeing Sweden to Italy, Jack hides out In a small Umbrian town, to carry out a final job for his handler, providing the weapons and logistics for a fellow assassin. Along the way he meets prostitute Clara, with whom he strikes up a reluctant romance but with the Swedish assassins closing in it’s not long before it’s clear Jack’s not going to get away quite so easily.
It would be unfair to give away more of the plot twists as it’s an engrossing story, it’s pretty derivative stuff and I couldn’t shake a niggling sense of déjà vu once the main thrust of the narrative kicked in, but it’s directed with such assuredness that it sustains interest, if not always believability.
Clooney’s never been the most versatile actor, usually coasting on a limited set of mannerisms and movie star charm, but here he gives perhaps a career best performance. Brimming with self-loathing and paranoia, he spends much of the film alone, the scenes of him building and perfecting the rifle for the job are superb, with a concentration and methodical exactitude reminiscent of Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul in The Conversation.
It’s the supporting characters which prove problematic, the priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and the prostitute (Violante Placido) are two crudely drawn archetypes with some horrible dialogue, and the assassin for whom he’s building the weapon (Thekla Reuten) could have been more interesting.
It’s a strong movie though, Corbijn’s direction is superb throughout and whilst perhaps not reaching the elegiac heights of Peckinpah or Leone to which it clearly aspires (the opening sequence of Once Upon A Time In The West plays in a bar here), there’s still a certain fatalism to Jack’s character, it’s just that his scenes with Clara aren’t written well enough for us to be truly invested in their relationship come the inevitable resolution. It’s still one of the most interesting mainstream American films of the year, Corbijn’s made two great pictures now and I’m excited to see where he goes next.
The American – 2010 – USA – 104 mins – Dir : Anton Corbijn
Screening as part of the Film On The Square strand at the London Film Festival on Saturday 16th, Sunday 17th & Tuesday 19th October. Tickets available at www.bfi.org.uk/lff