In the opening shot of Anton Corbijnâ€™s The American as the camera slowly approaches a snow-covered cabin with no music or audible sound effects, the feeling of isolation is immense. The serene environment almost causes one to stop breathing in order to not disturb the action that seems to be imminent. Something is coming, and we need not know what it is.
The American is an atypical thriller in that it prefers to take its time in the unfolding of its plot. Corbijn relishes silence as he keeps the camera on his subject just a little longer than is comfortable forcing the audience to examine everything in the frame. As a former photographer, Corbijn is astutely aware of focus and he plays with the audience â€“ often times shifting focal points in a single shot. With these techniques Corbijn is able to make a familiar story about a hit man attempting retirement seem fresh, exciting, and original.
On the surface, The American is a movie about a hit man attempting to complete one last job before retiring and leaving the dangerous world behind. George Clooney plays Jack or Edward, depending on the reference (for the purpose of this review I will use Edward), who has just escaped an attack in Sweden and made for a remote village in Italy where he will reconnect with his boss. His next job is to construct an automatic rifle that will be used for an unknown assassination. Despite its simplicity on paper, there is never a moment where it feels like the job will be an easy one and thanks to Corbijnâ€™s brilliant direction you get the sense that the stakes have never been higher.
While away in this village, Edward befriends an aging priest named Father Benedetto and a beautiful prostitute named Clara, which sets up the film to seem like a Kurosawa lonesome samurai movie or a Sergio Leone man with no name Western (an overt reference to the latter is made in one tense scene). The conversations that Edward has with Father Benedetto make for some of the most fascinating moments of the film as the priest delves into Edwardâ€™s psychology through brief bits of dialogue that reveal the hitmanâ€™s thoughts on love and sexual politics. Throughout the film Father Benedetto and Clara attempt to learn Edwardâ€™s secret, which is constantly downplayed by the withdrawn protagonist.
At its core, the film is really about how humans create our own prisons. The hunter becomes the hunted as some of Edwardâ€™s past enemies track him down and attempt to attack him in his Italian sanctuary. Through several fast-paced action scenes that break the calm tone like a splash of cold water to the face, Edward realizes that he might not have any escape after all. Corbijn creates a feeling of constant surveillance with every shot seemingly framed to have one person in the background turned and staring at the protagonist. We donâ€™t know which direction the next shot is coming from, but we know that it is coming.
Clooney is in top form as Edward â€“ a character that is completely emotionally detached from his surroundings and seems to live a fearless existence. His apathy inspires him to kill his first lover within the first five minutes of the film simply to get her out of his way. Clooney doesnâ€™t flinch when attacked, but there is a passion within that he attempts to suppress harder than the sounds from his rifle. Clooney masterfully portrays the subtle nuances with an ability to show so much below the surface. His character gets about a page of dialogue in the entire movie so all of the acting is done with his eyes that dart about always anticipating his omnipresent enemyâ€™s next move.
Other than Clooney the cast mostly consists of unknowns. Veteran Italian actor Paolo Bonacelli gives one of the best performances as the welcoming priest and Violante Placido puts her clothes on for just long enough to demonstrate some real acting chops. Other minor characters pop in and out so infrequently they are hardly noteworthy.
The American is not entirely without flaws. For instance several scenes dragged on for just a bit too long to the point where they lost their suspense. The scene where Edward demonstrates the rifleâ€™s abilities to his potential client is one notable example. However, Anton Corbijn has proven to me that he is definitely a director to keep an eye on going forward with a masterpiece soon to come â€“ I can feel it.
Bottom Line: Donâ€™t see The American if youâ€™re in the mood for a taut action-thriller; see it if you want to be challenged to look at the hit man movie genre a little deeper.
[Image: Cinema Blend]