(Focus) George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, Johan Leysen, Filippo Timi, Anna Foglietta, Irina Bjorklund, Giorgio Gobbi, Samuli Vauramo, Raffaele Serao, Sandro Dori, Antonio Rampino, Lars Hjelm, Silvana Bosi, Guido Palliggiano. Directed by Anton Corbijn
Anton Corbijn made his start as a still photographer, and he is quite frankly responsible for many wonderful album covers, mostly from European bands. He graduated into making music videos (mostly for Depeche Mode) before doing a full-fledged concert video (also for Depeche Mode) until making his feature film debut in 2008 for Control (which was about Joy Division’s front man Ian Curtis, not Depeche Mode). Corbijn has a very recognizable style; what would he make of a spy thriller?
Well, the fact of the matter is that The American isn’t so much a spy thriller as it is a character study, and it certainly isn’t a Bourne-like action movie as it was marketed over here. That may have contributed to the truly horrendous word-of-mouth it got from people who saw it (it got a D- rating from the service that gauges audience reactions to movies they’ve just seen, an unusually low score). That may have frightened some people away from seeing it. That’s a shame because this is a pretty good movie.
Jack (Clooney) is canoodling in Sweden with a comely brunette before he is ambushed by armed hunters while taking a walk in the snow. It turns out that Jack not only carries a gun but he knows how to use it. The scene is shocking in its violence and we are treated to the sight of a stone cold killer, literally speaking.
Jack escapes Sweden and makes his way to Rome, where his handler Pavel (Leysen) advises him to get out of Rome and to a small town where nobody would think to look for him. Jack takes a Fiat into the mountainous Abruzzi region of Italy but he doesn’t like the vibe of the town that Pavel sends him to – too many nosy people. He instead makes his way for another charming little mountain village where he hopes to lay low and not attract any attention. “And above all,” Pavel warns him, “Don’t make any friends. You used to know that.”
So Jack – who is calling himself Edward here – takes the guise of a travel photographer and makes friends with the local priest, Father Benedetto (Bonacelli). So much for listening to good advice, it seems. In any case, Pavel gives him an assignment – to assemble a rifle with particular qualities for a contact named Mathilde (Reuten) who looks like she just stepped off of a Vespa in Fellini’s Rome – and maybe she did.
So Jack – or is it Edward? Or some other name entirely? – enlists the help of the good padre’s cousin Fabio (Timi), who runs a garage in the middle of nowhere which beggars the question; who on earth is going to drive a car that isn’t working right all the way out there? Anyway, Fabio gives Jack the run of the place, so Jack takes some tools and materials in order to make a noise suppresser for the rifle (a silencer wouldn’t work for the kind of range Mathilde is looking for). The weapon is obviously the weapon of an assassin, but Jack asks no questions so Mathilde tells him no lies.
Jack begins to utilize the services of Clara (Placido), a local prostitute. Quite improbably, the two of them begin to fall for each other – you can tell Clara has feelings for him because she stops charging him for sex. Now Jack is tired of running, tired of being chased, tired of dodging taciturn men with guns who mean to do him murder. He wants out, but this is the kind of business that is very hard to leave once you get in.
There is actually very little action except at the very beginning and the very end, and some moments in between (such as when Jack is playing a cat and mouse game with a Swedish assassin out to make him pay for his antics in Sweden). Corbijn’s training as a still photographer serves him very well; every shot is meticulously set up and looks like it could be easily hanging in a European gallery. Corbijn forces you to look at what he wants you to see. For example, the opening credits run over a continuous shot of Clooney driving through a long tunnel; yellow mile markers flash by the vehicle in the artificial light of the tunnel. At the very end is a bright white light; will Clooney arrive at that destination? In a sense, this is emblematic of what the movie is all about – an escape from darkness into light for a soul that has dwelled in the darkness for far too long.
This is not your father’s George Clooney, or even Danny Ocean’s George Clooney. Jack/Edward is a very hard man; most of the time his face is rigid, his mouth set in a thin hard line of disapproval. There is no twinkle in this character’s eyes, only steel. This is not a role we’re used to seeing from Clooney.
Those who are offended by the nude female body should take into account that this is a very European movie in a lot of ways; the nudity doesn’t bother European audiences, nor does explicit sex. We even get a gratuitous shot of Clooney’s derriere as well, just to balance things out for the ladies.
There is very little dialogue in the movie and what dialogue there is comes out in terse, brusque staccato, like someone ordering a cappuccino at the local coffee house. There is also a good deal of existential philosophizing about the nature of souls, good and evil, particularly in dialogue between Father Benedetto and Jack. Most American audiences won’t have the patience for it, but there are at least some insights to be found if you choose to look for them.
Part of the problem with the movie is one of the strengths I mentioned earlier. Still photographers have a tendency to make their scenes very static, and so Corbijn does. There may be movement in the frame, but the camera itself does not. That contributes to an overall feeling of languor that can be off-putting at times, even though you tell yourself “Hey, this is about a guy cooling his heels in rural Italy; how exciting is it going to get?” The answer? Not much.
Still, this is as finely crafted a film as I’ve seen this year and I can appreciate it as a work of art if not a crisply told story. Clooney may not be the next Eastwood (and Leysen not the next Terrance Stamp, whom he resembles facially – if Stamp and Scott Glenn had a love child together, that is) but he does the brooding bit very well. Much of the movie is tight on Clooney’s face, and the world-weary demeanor is what draws you to him. Some have complained that Clooney doesn’t reveal much of the inner Jack/Edward but a man like that would have learned early on that revealing your emotions is tantamount to death itself, for it can be used against you in that line of work. This is a very different movie than we’re used to seeing, and for that alone I can commend it highly.
REASONS TO GO: The crafting of each shot, the composition of every frame is simply amazing. There’s a good deal of depth in the script.
REASONS TO STAY: This is not an action movie even though it was marketed as such; if you’re looking for a new Bourne, stay away. Clooney does the brooding, silent killer pretty well, but this isn’t one of his more compelling performances.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some explicit sex and nudity, some fairly violent and disturbing images and enough swearing in more than one language to make this very much for mature audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Clooney’s character prefers using a Walther PPK just like a certain British secret agent of our acquaintance.
HOME OR THEATER: I will admit some of the vistas worked very well on the big screen but by and large you can get away with seeing this at home.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
TOMORROW: I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell