This review can also be read in the Arts & Living section of a wonderful student newspaper called The Amherst Student.
As I sat watching the trailers before the matinee screening of Anton Corbijn’s “The American,” it occurred to me that neither the studio behind the film nor the theater projecting it had any clue who the film’s demographic might be. How else to explain back-to-back previews for “Flipped,” a saccharine adolescent nostalgia-fest from Rob Reiner, and “Let Me In,” Hollywood’s remake of a disturbingly gory Swedish vampire flick? But don’t fault the film’s backers for being a little confused. “The American” is a marketing nightmare: a spy thriller that prefers meditation to munitions, an art-house sleeper starring one of the most recognizable stars on the planet. So don’t be fooled by the film’s ad campaign; Corbijn’s film is hardly a conventional late-summer genre entertainment.
“The American” begins the same way any good James Bond film would: our hero, the titular American (an initially-bearded George Clooney) shacked up in an isolated Scandinavian hideaway with some nameless brunette beauty. However, within minutes, we are confronted by a most decidedly un-Bondian action, and we know we’re not in Kansas anymore. Following the repercussions of what happens in Sweden, Clooney’s character Jack (or Edward, or even Mr. Butterfly, depending on who and when you ask) flees to Italy on orders from his boss, Pavel (Johan Leyson), hiding out in a tiny hilltop village from pursuing assassins.
But all play and no work makes Jack a bored boy. Pavel sets up Jack with a new job, and it is only here that we finally learn what the American does to make him such a target. With meticulous care and expert hands, Jack sets about crafting a custom rifle for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), an enigmatic client. Their dialogue together is pragmatic: they discuss only specifications on the rifle (much as you would imagine such people actually speak in real life). Jack’s relationship with Clara (Violante Placido, astoundingly her real name), a local prostitute, begins in equally functional fashion, but when you look like George Clooney, romantic entanglement can never be too far away.
The days wear on, with Jack tinkering away with his tools and quietly navigating the treacherous waters of sexual tension. He is befriended by the village’s priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who takes a special interest in the American’s endangered soul. The two engage in brief but insightful discussions on salvation and sin, providing a context for the film’s extended passages of contemplation. The village and its surrounding landscape are exquisitely beautiful but somehow dreadfully foreboding; as Jack restlessly wanders through the night, footsteps echoing into the darkness, it is easy to picture the eerie, twisted, empty streets as a sort of hell.
Yet we agree when, in one exchange, Clara insists to her lover, “you are a good man.” Indeed, Jack murders and lies, but one senses that he is driven to his actions out of fear, and a fear much greater than that of being shot: the nightmare of being alone, of being unloved, of never being able to trust anyone ever again. These are essentially the same anxieties that haunted Ryan Bingham, George Clooney’s character in last year’s “Up in the Air.” But taken out of the relative hustle and bustle of corporate America and laid bare in this alienated, extreme setting, the paranoia rapidly expands to fill the void.
Clooney was nominated for an Oscar for his role in “Up in the Air,” but what Corbijn asks of him here is far more challenging. Unable to rely on that distinctively soothing voice, the former “ER” star here delivers his most measured, precise performance to date. It’s like someone took the closing credits of “Michael Clayton,” where Clooney, without a single word, compressed all the doubt, frustration and suffering of his character into a single expression, and expanded it into a feature-length film. It’s astounding to think that this is the same man who smirked and winked his way through the “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise.
Clooney’s tight performance reflects the approach Corbijn takes to the film as a whole. This is the second feature Corbijn has made (the first was 2007’s acclaimed Ian Curtis biopic, “Control”) following years as a portrait and landscape photographer, and he has put the skills learned from that career to phenomenal use here; the composition is so uniformly perfect you cease to notice the craft behind the images, and just immerse yourself in their stunning beauty.
Meanwhile, I have all sorts of puns in my arsenal to describe the pitch-perfect score by Herbert Grönemeyer (“Das Boot”), but I’ll leave it at that one and just add that film music rarely feels this organic. Those responsible for the film’s sound as a whole should also be commended: so much of the tone of “The American” relies on pronounced silence, those outbursts of noise that we do receive resonate long after we register them.
I’m not sure whether the surprising success of “The American” ($24.2 million in its first 10 days) should be chalked up to Clooney’s star cachet or savvy/deceptive marketing. But any time the studios can convince/trick audiences into going to see such a taut, impenetrable film is a good day in my book. Next week, we can go back to zombies and geeky high schoolers losing their virginity; for now, revel in a temporary rise in the quality of pop culture in this country.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars