By Willie Krischke — September 20, 2010
“The American” is a film about a man who makes specialized weapons for assassins. It is a very dangerous and secretive line of work. But this is not a film about the line of work; every frame and shot of “The American” is about the man, played by George Clooney. He is careful and secretive, cautious and thorough. His line of work demands it. He cannot have friends, or lovers; he can trust no one or ever let his guard down. In many ways, “The American” is a film about loneliness and desire.
In the shocking opening sequence, set against an unnamed snowscape, we become aware of just how high the stakes are for Clooney. It goes without saying that there is no room for error; we are shown, and Clooney is reminded, that there is no room for levity, relaxation or trust either. There is always, and will always be, someone very good at killing people trying to kill him.
Or maybe there isn’t always someone trying to kill him. But how would you ever know? They’re not going to come knocking at your door, announcing themselves. Clooney relocates from the snow to a picturesque Italian village, built into a hillside. It looks ready to topple if anyone in it breathed wrong. Clooney’s psyche is similar. The village is a full of winding alleys, and divergent paths heading up and down, splitting and merging. It’s an easy place to get lost, and a terrific place for a tense, suspenseful chase scene.
But you may wait longer for that chase scene than you’d like. Because “The American” is more concerned with portraying the inner life of its main character, we spend a long time wondering if all the ominous portents that Clooney sees are ever going to add up to anything. Is someone trying to kill him, or is it all in his head? Could it be both? Is the priest merely perceptive, as priests ought to be, or does he know something? This new client seems fishy—is Clooney digging his own grave has he builds a weapon for her? And what of the prostitute?
Ah yes, the prostitute. Clooney longs for connection, but connection is dangerous. He visits a brothel, and when Clara (played by Violante Placido, who clearly has no problem with nudity) isn’t there, he turns around and goes home. She asks to see him outside the brothel, breaking all kinds of rules-–both his and hers. He falls for her and grows suspicious of her at the same time. This makes for some wonderfully tense and tender scenes, some of the best I’ve seen in a movie this year.
“The American” was directed by Anton Corbijn, whose only other film (the excellent “Control,” about Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis) was about just how unglamorous being a rock star really is. Corbijn seems intent to drain the world of all its false notions of romance and glamour, and to do it with style. For while “The American” is certainly a measured, thoughtful piece about loneliness and psychological torment, it is also, always, incredibly stylish. It is more than a little reminiscent of classics like “The Conversation” and “Day of the Jackal;” the settings, the shots, and the costumes have a distinctly European flavor to them. (If I have one complaint about “The American,” it’s that the assassins are terribly easy to pick out in a crowd; they’re the only ones wearing thousand dollar suits.) But while it is worlds away in its cinematic qualities, it also reminded me a great deal of the films of Martin Scorsese in its morality. This is a film about the terrible cost to the soul of engaging in dark and violent work, and the inevitable, inescapable end to that kind of lifestyle. George Clooney’s American may look, talk and act like he lives in a completely different world from Henry Hill, but he doesn’t. It’s the same world, and it operates according to the same rules, whether you’re hustling on the streets of New York or building assassin’s weapons in an Italian villa.