The American (2010): United States – directed by Anton Corbijn
Rated R by the MPAA – contains violence, brief language, nudity, sexuality
The American moves slowly, which makes for a pleasurable experience when filmed by someone with a photographer’s eye, such as Anton Corbijn. A multi-national production (though financed with American funds), the film slowly explores a variety of themes through a simple story revolving around Jack.
Jack (George Clooney) is a hit man. He is first introduced at an isolated chalet on the edge of a frozen Swedish lake. He is accompanied by a lovely friend, Ingrid (Irina Björklund), but their relationship is brought to an abrupt halt. Finding himself less than welcome in Sweden, Jack heads to Rome, where he is given new instructions; he is to hole up in a small hillside village and wait.
As he waits, with orders not to make any new “friends,” he hesitantly explores the town. Soon his next assignment comes through. He is to provide a custom-built rifle, but not pull the trigger. A couple of complications provide some trouble, however. To begin with, his new contact is the unexpectedly attractive Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), a young woman with an enormous knowledge of firearms. Additionally, Jack (or Edward, as he introduces himself to certain people) begins to befriend Clara (Violante Placido), a local prostitute. He also becomes acquainted with the village priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who provides spiritual wisdom in small doses.
But the film isn’t really about what happens. It is more about the person to whom it happens. Father Benedetto tells Jack that he must know hell is real, because he is already living in it. Jack, played by an effective and understated Clooney, seems to already know this. But he doesn’t speak much, furthering the introspective depth of his pain. He is a man who has known no one for most of his life. His friends end up dead, and though he longs for intimate relationships he knows it is not possible. The closest he can get is to start a monogamous relationship with Clara, choosing not to sleep with any of the other girls at the brothel. This is the best way he knows to become connected to another person.
Father Benedetto encourages him to confess his sins, as he looks like a man who has sinned a lot and continues to sin. But Jack knows this isn’t possible, and doesn’t even see a reason for it. He struggles with it, though, and Clooney’s eyes give away more than any dialogue could. The deep-lined face of Father Benedetto indicates that he might know a thing or two about sin as well, making him a realistic spiritual adviser for Jack. Ultimately the only redemption Jack can imagine comes with a risk that may be too great for him to bear. Father Benedetto is a key character in the film, and it is fortunate that he doesn’t feel like a cliched version of a wise man. There have been many films about assassins that have such a character, but Father Benedetto is flawed, and therefore credible.
The American moves slowly, and the camera isn’t afraid to linger on a shot after people have already passed through the frame, much like Blowup [review here] did four decades ago. This technique gives the the film a pondering, thoughtful progression, and adds to the feeling that this is an adult feature. There is content that would be inappropriate for children, but it is also the pace and the thoughtfulness that makes it more appealing to older audiences. Unfortunately, the slowness might be a little pretentious at times, as I’m not sure there’s as much depth to the film as it seems to think it has. This isn’t always a problem, but there seem to be few deep truths that it explores.
It is not a problem that the film moves slowly, for each frame is meticulously composed. Moving shots feel like each frame of movement has been composed, and still shots are even more precisely planned. Extremely shallow focus guides the eye, and often gets lost as it moves from a foreground object to the background. The locations are fantastic, from the frozen Swedish lake to the hills of Italy. Italy gets the majority of the screen time, and it is almost worth seeing the film solely as a violent travelogue. The hills, some of them barren, some lush, are perfect counterpoints to both the snow-tipped mountains and the flat valleys.
There may not be any strongly apparent themes in the film, but this is not usually a problem. However, in The American many of the themes are so deeply hidden behind Clooney’s eyes and a lack of exposition that it might be difficult for some viewers to discern them. Another minor complaint lies with certain soundtrack choices, particularly suspenseful chase sections that are heavy on sharp percussion. Other than this annoyance, the production is perfectly capable, and occasionally brilliant regarding the cinematography and acting. The American has an audience, and many people will find plenty to discuss within the film. Others will find it too boring or too bland, but I would encourage those with enough patience and an eye for photographic beauty to check it out.