The American

UK DVD release date: 4th April 2011
Certificate: 15
Running time: 101 mins
Director: Anton Corbijn
Starring: George Clooney, Paolo Bonacelli, Violante Placido
Genre: Thriller/Drama
UK distributor:  Universal
Format: DVD/Blu Ray
Country: USA

When the word came down that Anton Corbijn was following up his acclaimed documentary on Joy Division (Control) with an adaptation of Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman there was a heavy balance of excitement and bemusement from cinephiles alike. 

The American or Jack (George Clooney) as he’s more commonly known to the select few who interact with him is on high alert and looking to lay low after an attempt on his life in Sweden leaves him the target or wrath.  Killing his attackers and companion before fleeing to the sleepy town of Abruzzi in Italy Jack awaits word from his employer on his next move.  When faced with a choice of re-entering the world he has made his own and that of a potential future with a young prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido) Jack walks a line that he’s never known before.

The first thing you will notice is how simply beautiful The American is, whether it’s the opening sequence in Sweden, the gloriously stylish tunnel opening credits scene or the gliding camera over the picturesque village this film is beautiful.  Corbijn’s vision is of a strong European style which, when overlapped on top of a distinctly American genre, channels comparisons to the work of Sergio Leone crossed with the almost eerie tranquility of Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English language feature Blowup.  In comparison to similar titles by American directors this film almost seems lazy in its confidence to tell its story in its own time.  One of the criticisms levied against The American is the narrative; most critics seem to take exception in that it’s not a very original story.  This is fair, it’s not.  An assassin lays low and after meeting a “hooker with a heart of gold” reconsiders his existence.  What is original however is everything else within this film.  As exciting set pieces go, most exist within the trailer there are multiple scenes that play out throughout the course of the film that are simply Clooney working at his kitchen table on his assignment or drinking coffee with the beats played out on his face or the absence of any real exposition.

Unsurprisingly for Corbijn the soundtrack is excellent, at least where it exists.  The opening theme after the initial shoot out in snowy Sweden is quite unlike what has come before it and what will follow.  Its life, colour and vibrancy all go to exhibit the metropolitan high profile world that Jack must avoid for the time being.  The moments of exposure for Jack, when on assignment, carry a slow and meticulously increase of the cinematic tension to the point where you’re almost thankful that the tradition running, shooting, exploding ‘hurrah’ is not present as the dramatic tension is almost unbearable as it is.  This tension is bottled as Corbijn’s mastery of the pace doesn’t allow audiences a moment to expel it and the simple but genius score is in every way as responsible for this as the performers on screen or the cinematography.

As a performer this is the most interesting time of George Clooney’s career.  Having grown out of his television days and the early problems of less than average roles in less than average films like One Fine Day, Batman and Robin and The Peacemaker, Clooney has not just matured as a performer but excelled in roles that are contradictory to his “star persona”.  Like Syriana, his Best Supporting Actor winner, The American is not a George Clooney film.  Women will not swoon during this offering.  Jack is lacking is all of the usual charisma that Clooney effortlessly brings to his roles, he has a cast iron serious streak running through him, is unemotional, lacks all sentiment and carries a hard threatening stare that almost tries to dissect those in conversation in order to work out how they tick.  At times in the film he states he’s not good with machines but that’s clearly not the case.  It’s other human beings he has issues with hence his reliance on prostitutes who will unemotionally sell a service.  Violante Placido (as Clara) has all the assets needed to save Jack from himself as her beauty and charm is more than enough to defrost even the coldest of hearts and is charming enough for both of them.  Usually the notion of “the girl” and how their cinematic presence is enough to change the direction [of someone so heavily set in their ways that it’s ritualistic] is something of a stumbling block as narratively you want to buy into it but realistically it jars with all the characterization that comes before.  It’s to the credit of Placido and Clooney that the relationship between Jack and Clara is not only believable but logical.  What starts as a business transaction leads Clara, for whatever reason, to respect Jack and eventually to love.  Likewise Clara’s love of life and charisma is understandably enough for Jack to question his path and in doing so open his heart not just to a new life but a ‘want’ for a new life.

The stand out supporting performs are that of Paolo Bonacelli (Father Benedetto) and Thekla Reuten (Mathilde).  Clooney cuts a menacing figure but Reuten has a quiet and un-menaced hardness in her performance that doesn’t even have to be referenced.  She’s a cold blooded killer, that’s evident and to refer to it or her gender is to undermine just how strong and commanding a performance this is.  Likewise Bonacelli as Jack’s attempted saviour highlights the absence of a guiding light during Jack’s formative years but even this light is less than beaming.  Riddled with flaws and contradictions Bonacelli’s Father Benedetto is simply an older version of Jack at the other end of the spectrum and is the unacknowledged mirror in Corbijn’s narrative.

There are simply not enough words to describe just how wonderful it is to see an intelligent drama like The American.  Nay saying reviews have pointed to the fact that it’s too slow and lacking in any suspense but perhaps they were expecting a different film or were watching the wrong film as The American is packed with tension and intrigue.  The action plays out in brinks and micro gestures and if Roberto Rossellini made “assassin” films he would make one like The American only Corbijn made it better.  Like Sergio Leone, Corbijn has made a distinctly American genre film but with the values and sensibilities of a European art house director and in doing so raises so many interesting points of discussion and debate about honour and fate.  Corbijn's The American is without debate the most beautiful, thrilling and patiently intelligent film of the year.


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