Anton Corbijn’s The American (2010) is a cool, continental thriller starring George Clooney as the titular American, a professional in the assassination game in Europe. I use the term “thriller” in the generic sense, as this plays out more like Jean-Pierre Melville portrait of isolated underworld professionals, freelancers in the international network of criminal enterprise.
Clooney’s character, who responds to either Jack or Edward, depending on the situation, is a blank in personal terms, defined entirely by his skills, his reputation and his actions. He’s alive because he’s attentive and wary and trusts no one, even those he ostensibly loves, and he proves his ruthless survival skills and survivalist instincts in the crisply-executed opening sequence set in the snowy wilderness of what should be a far-north retreat from his brutal world. In this kind of movie, your world follows you.
The American is just as much a crime fantasy as an Ocean’s heist movie, it just trades the light humor and fun-loving camaraderie for the tragic romanticism of the cruel criminal code of existential killers and brutal crime bosses. This is the second feature from Corbijn, a photographer and designer turned music video director who attacked his first feature, a biopic about Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, with a rough and ready style to get at he rawness of the troubled singer’s buried emotions and anxieties. For The American, he goes for stillness, aloof observation and studies in minute details of behavior and action. The anxiety here is all about knowing your surroundings and your enemy and the American is always vigilant, especially when it comes to Pavel (Johan Leysen), the man who hands him assignments and sets him up with a safe house after he escapes an assassination attempt.
Clooney lets his natural charisma through the mask but doesn’t try to woo the audience. Given the fallout of his last job, he looks for love with other professionals (you know, hookers) while working one last job for Pavel, enough to get him out of there for good while “the Swedes” try to track him down. He’s isolated, removed, a stranger in a picaresque old-world Italian village who speaks the language but stands out in this culture of trust and ease. When a local asks if he’s American, he answers “Si, il Americano.” “No, l’Americano,” is the Italian’s response, a lesson in grammar that also defines his presence there.
He’s not an American, he is the American. Not just the only one in the village but the only American in the international cast of characters (and actors) in the film: working for a vaguely Russian contact, hired out to a vaguely British client, and pursued by Swedes with guns while hiding out in the most beautiful rural Italian village you’ve ever seen. The old-world town looks like it has been carved out of a hill, the alleys winding down through the stone and brick buildings. In one shot, the clouds around the base of the town give it the look of a heavenly escape floating in the sky.
For all of its precise direction and beautiful imagery, it’s a classic genre picture, and a damn good one at that, a superb portrait in isolation and justifiable paranoia that is less a thriller than an icy portrait in survival and revenge dropped into the peace and old-world calm of a rural paradise. And once again, the possibility of connection, this time to the gorgeous, earthy hooker (Violante Placido) who becomes more than a business arrangement, becomes a liability in the life of a man whose life is all about death.
The DVD and Blu-ray from Focus features commentary by director Anton Corbijn. I would have enjoyed knowing what was on his mind for this film, but his commentary is halting and awkward, more play-by-play description of what’s on screen than behind-the-scenes discussion. The 11-minute making-of is even slighter. They’re nominal supplements for a strong film. Also includes five minutes of deleted scenes (very handsome) and the Blu-ray includes the usual interactive BD-Live functions.