For me, the name George Clooney brings to mind a few certain types of film: respectable romantic comedies, off-color comedies, and the occasional Oscar favorite. But I’m hard pressed to think of a Clooney film that really stayed with me, or even one I enjoyed watching more than once. So as I went into the screening of Anton Corbijn’s The American, I expected a solid, but mostly inconsequential film that I would soon forget (especially since it’s September). What I got, however, was an interesting project that seemed out of place in mainstream cinemas.
The American is an exercise in style, and patience. The entire film lacks in both dialogue and plot. And the usually smarmy Clooney we see, and the annoyingly dashing smile he gets by on, isn’t seen even once. This is an unusually subdued performance for the mega-star, and it’s an unusually subdued film. Clooney plays a man going by the name Jake in the beginning of the film, and then takes on the name Edward. It’s never quite clear what his profession is, but it’s safe to assume it’s illegal, and probably violent. The bulk of the story takes place in a tiny village east of Rome, in Italy. He’s hired to create a custom weapon for an attractive colleague (a sultry Thekla Reuten). In the small village, isolated, and most likely battling inner demons, Edward befriends both the local priest, and a local whore (an exceptional Violante Placido), who becomes so enamored by him, she stops charging, and asks him out to dinner. Damn it Clooney, we get it. You get everything.
Believe it or not, that’s basically the gist. The length of the film is dedicated to showing Edward and his craft–his dedication, his proficiency. Corbijn’s film is adapted for the screen by Rowan Joffe (28 Weeks Later), who adapted the novel ‘A Private Gentleman’ by Marion Booth. I’d be extremely interested to read the source material, knowing now, what is shown on screen. Corbijn finds a delicate balance between just showing the audience that Edward is inaccessible, closed off to the viewer, and actually making him too uninterested to matter. In my opinion, Corbijn struck that perfect balance.
It’s difficult not to call to mind Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control from last year. As the two films share much. Both feature a lone man, in a foreign country. In The American it’s Italy, in Limits, it’s Spain. They both take place in European villages, and star lonely men on a violent mission. And both are starkly minimal in their portrayal of characters, locations, and interactions. Any praise I heaped on Jarmusch’s film would most certainly apply to The American.
With such a lack of plot, and even a lack of words, you have to wonder what is actually offered to make the film worth watching. Well, there’s plenty to be taken advantage of. Every scene is remarkably beautiful. Mr. Corbijn is a photographer turned filmmaker, and it shows in his remarkable ability to compose every shot with such skill and decidedly relaxed confidence. His prodigious knowledge of how to capture landscape and architecture on film is outstanding. This cinematography is matched by original music by Herbert Grönemeyer, who assists in keeping up tension (there may, or may not be men bent on taking Edward’s life). The American belongs in an arthouse theatre, and I’m guessing that there will be a fair amount of people unamused that this film is being marketed as a summer blockbuster. Sure, you may be disappointed if you’re expecting one thing and getting another. But I promise you, what you actually get is much more interesting than anything else you could have seen at the cinema. Both Clooney and Corbijn have earned a new level of respect from this viewer.