George Clooney plays Jack, a stoic assassin. Or rather, the film’s narrative presentation leads us to believe he’s an assassin. As we come to find out, he’s a mechanic, or gunsmith, except that he builds special weapons for special tasks. A botched job in Sweden results in the death of his lover, an innocent bystander, and a reassignment to Italy. Jack calls his boss (Johan Leysen) who locates him in a small village till the next job comes along. It’s telling that Jack doesn’t stay in that village, but a nearby one—we suspect he doesn’t trust his boss not to eliminate him after the fucked assignment, or perhaps he just doesn’t like the look of the place. Clooney plays a character with a well-realized awareness, or spy acumen, such calm consideration that we know he’s always trying to figure out all the angles. He doesn’t take risks. Corbijn doesn’t let us in on his thought processes, instead we have to assume Jack knows what he’s doing and leave it at that.
Everything in Jack’s life is regimented. His exercise routine, his nighttime walks, his calls to his employer; his dedication to the mission never in question. In the physical and emotional isolation of this pastoral villa in Abruzzo, Italy, going to the brothel becomes part of this routine. He meets Clara (Violante Placido, who could firm any man’s loins while melting his heart), a prostitute he’s peculiarly attracted to; clearly, she’s turned on by him and she makes the first move. Any kind of relationship, even with a hooker, threatens Jack’s ability to do his job, and he knows this. Without even meaning to or trying, he and Clara fall in love. She’s exactly the kind of woman who could make him leave this life, settle down. He’s getting on in years, and the botched job signals that he isn’t made of the same kind of stuff anymore. He needs a change. He’s thinking this, and we know he’s thinking it; Clooney’s major accomplishment here.
Corbijn has made it known that he hadn’t seen very many movies before becoming a director, but it would be exceedingly odd if the films of Jean-Pierre Melville weren’t among them. The American has rightfully garnered comparisons to Melville’s minimalist film noirs, particularly his Le samouraï. The stoicism is there, no doubt, as is the obstinacy of the narrative; even the fetish of fine clothes and weaponry that Melville was known for lend themselves to The American. Like that film, this one is chock full of ennui, beautifully composed. Every shot just feels right; I couldn’t think of any way to improve it. As with Melville’s oeuvre, audiences may wonder at the lack of variety, the lack of wonder. If you want that kind of film, there are plenty to be sought out, but Corbijn has made something quiet and deliberate, stubbornly drifting along a predetermined course. The trick is to avoid making the audience feel the current, to pull them down the beachhead without them knowing it. This, I believe, it accomplishes.
Perhaps the most compelling similarity with Le samouraï is in the protagonists, both calculating professionals—in response to Father Benedetto’s query about why Jack does what he does, he responds, “because I’m good at it,”—but neither Jack nor Alain Delon’s Costello is very good at what they do; in retrospect, it’s ironic that both commit costly transgressions early on in their respective films. Both have personal flaws that are made manifest in the course of their vocations. While the film is not a black comedy nor played like a comedy in any sense, the story here is ideal fodder for filmmakers like the brothers Coen. The narrative irony that propels it, unveiled in the last act, is the sort of thing those two love to play with. There are moments, if acted or shot in a less direct way, and shots that, if abridged or allowed to linger a little, could easily transform The American from a deliberately paced noir drama into something comedic. Particularly scenes involving Father Benedetto (scenes that contain echoes of Godfather III), whom Jack ends up seeking for counsel, we presume.
On the other hand, the film I found myself thinking about most as I watched this was Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control. There are ideological comparisons to be made, but the similarity in settings and cinematography and narrative I found striking. If you deleted transitional scenes, obscured Jack’s motives even more and attached dramatic weight to every glance and every footstep you’d have a film much like The Limits of Control. However, The American tries its best to acquit itself, somewhat unlike Limits and very unlike Jarmusch’s primary inspiration, Boorman’s Point Blank. For a director who claims not to have seen that many movies, his film does a lot of on-sleeve cribbing from a treasure trove of classic films, scarcely parsed here.
However, what Corbijn has done is direct a very tightly-wound thriller, one that at times doesn’t seem very interested in getting on with the plot, to the film’s benefit. Characters and settings are introduced like musical themes; Corbijn uses subtle repetitions to give them weight and to give the viewer the sense that the story is going somewhere even when it isn’t so obvious. A good example is the phone calls between Jack and his employer that take place every fifteen minutes or so. They accomplish little except to set Jack up with his next contact and his next task, and they continue even after the mission is made clear. If you look for them, the film is dominated by repetitions, most slightly reconfigured with each iteration. It lends a hallucinatory quality to events which may seem rather ordinary given the extraordinariness that films usually attach to spy intrigues. There’s a butterfly motif—comprising a tattoo on Jack’s back—that doesn’t work for me. The theme of metamorphosis is made a little too manifest in a film that otherwise shrouds its intent.
It’s beautifully photographed by Ruhe and Corbijn, sublimely crafted, self-contained, mysterious, but ultimately The American serves up its fair share of fear and trembling. This is a case where viewers don’t have to feel as if they can “identify” with the story. There aren’t many as handsome as George Clooney, nor as sexy as Violante Placido (or Thekla Reuten for that matter), and obviously audiences cannot properly empathize with the circumstances of an illicit war, or shadowy intrigues involving hitmen. It simply doesn’t matter, because the heart of the film is the same as any; it’s a romance merely projected on to a much larger, fantastical stage with much larger stakes involved—a stage where death is just as likely an avenue for the characters as love.