Award winning photographer turned director Anton Corbijn decided to make another film after his highly successful rock biopic Control which was meant to be his one off experiment in film. It seems that Corbijn has taken to the movies more than he expected to as he is now focussed on honing in on his craft. With his second film The American it would seem he is well on his way, whether he is close...only time will tell.
Like Ian Curtis in Control this thriller also tells the story of a lonely soul battling inner demons. George Clooney plays the cold and aloof weapon specialist Jack (we can only assume that is his real name) in a role which he could perform in his sleep. The Hollywood bachelor who so often comes across as carefree and cool in interviews has made a career from lonely characters often going through a midlife crisis which forces them to look back on their actions, it would seem Mr. Clooney probably likes to work out his own issues and insecurities through his roles. In his role here there is no cheeky wink in the eye of Clooney, no school boy charm, this is the darkest role he has taken on since Michael Clayton, a role he was looking for.
After a job in Sweden results in an unplanned bloody climax, Jack flees to Italy where he vows to his supervisor that his next job will be his last. He is then hidden away in a scenic Italian village that looks like the perfect setting for a Peroni Nastro Azzurro advert. After some solidarity Jack Befriends the local Priest and shortly after a local prostitute, they have sparse conversations about what it is to be a sinner and the usual garb that you would expect from any of Ingmar Bergman's oeuvre. By this point it is very clear that The American is not the film trailers had so clearly promised. This is not Clooney takes on Bourne or Taken at all, what we are left with is closer to a western than a spy thriller. Clooney is by far the closest thing we have to a Cary Grant but this film is closer to Once Upon a Time in the West than North by Northwest and which has genre conventions closer to a western than a spy/crime thriller. The film we are left with is a much better one than was initially promised by the film's marketing campaign though this isn't without its problems. The existentialist aspects of the film are applied in a rather heavy handed manner and at times feel forced. The story of a killer coming to terms with his actions and his own looming mortality is not nearly as effortless as Andrew Dominik's masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James... a film that manages to let the sense of death and loathing crawl under your skin throughout the duration as apposed to ramming it down your throat in the first 15 minutes.
What works about The American which forgives it its cliches is that it is a throw back to the european crime pictures of the 60s and 70s. Any film enthusiast will have picked up from the film's poster art that this picture has more to do with the art house than the multiplex. The poster very reminiscent of the works of Michelangelo Antonioni. The film itself riffing off of European classics such as Bernado Bertolucci's The Conformist and unmistakably Jean Pierre Melville's crime/noir Le Samurai. However whether it plays off its knowledge of cinema's past or is weakened because of its ignorance too it is debatable.
The American shows George Clooney at his absolute best in a film closer to the classic works of Kurosawa and Bergman than the contemporary shaky cam craziness of Paul Greengrass. Director Anton Corbijn succeeds in making the film breathtakingly beautiful if not a little too sensational overall but one gets the feeling that he is still making his transition from photographer to director as a lot of the films deeper meanings and symbolism are delivered in a rather jarring way. Corbijn has some way to go to fully revel in his directors chair but it would seem that we're going to enjoy his journey doing so.