(Re-posted as it’s now playing in U.K. cinema’s)
‘Control’ director Anton Corbijn has surprised a lot of people with his decision to direct a thriller about an assassin starring George Clooney as his second full length feature film. But the extent to which it is a departure from his slow, intense and artful style has been greatly exaggerated: and that seems to be leading to something of a negative press on ‘The American‘.
I personally think that’s a little harsh on the film, which unites a series of intelligent techniques to tell the story of Jack (Clooney), an ageing assassin who is slowly losing his edge, putting himself and others in danger.
Sure, it’s not an original premise, there’s been plenty done about powerful men on the steady decline from their once-heady heights. Special agents, master criminals, cops, they’ve all received the treatment. But that’s not to say it can’t be done well, and doing it well is exactly what Corbijn focuses on.
The opening sequences of Jack with his Scandinavian lover ‘enjoying each other’s company’ before going out for a walk in the snowy, isolated landscape around their cabin, only to be ruthlessly interrupted by some mystery assassins, sets the tone for a harsh story of what it means to want to end your lifetime of shady dealings with the criminal underworld. And the events here send Jack fleeing to Italy, where his equally shady contact Pavel sorts him out with a car, an isolated hideout in an isolated village, and one last job: just a custom-made gun, he doesn’t even have to pull the trigger.
As Jack goes about his life in this tiny village in the Italian region of Abruzzo, Corbijn’s plan for the film really comes alive. He takes this standard setup, places all the key plot points, and then proceeds to play with them, creating an exercise in the creation of tension and the deconstruction of characters.
As I think I’ve hammered home already, isolation is a key part of this. Wide shots of the village, devoid of sound, empty streets and cold contacts devoid of feelings create a vacuum around Jack that symbolises the detachment he has imposed upon himself by his choice of life. This is counterpointed by a romantic liaison, and an unlikely friendship with a priest that set the scene for any number of potential tragedies to strike as Jack becomes ever more desperate to end his separation from humanity.
And Corbijn makes sure that we believe tragedy can happen. Jack’s ebbing control over the situation, already made clear, is brought back to us regularly in all sorts of small reminders. Jumpy reactions to changes in routine, little habits that are hard to shake, small intrusions and shifts in shadows. All of these details emerge and dissipate to disrupt to ‘calm, too calm’ atmosphere that pervades throughout.
This means that when the thriller scenes do emerge, you’re on a knife-edge, and moments that could seem predictable or unimaginative in other plots suddenly seem taut and effective. This is the brilliance of Corbijn’s direction.
So if you want to see an artsy director ditching his approach and going for an all-out action movie, avoid this. You’ll end up disappointed. But if you want to see a carefully paced, well-designed and beautifully shot suspense-thriller that hits all of its marks, then you could do far worse than ‘The American’.
‘The American’ is in U.K. cinema’s now.
This article was first posted on November 27, 2010