George Clooney is Jack ‘The American’, an emotionally exhausted professional assassin hiding out in the rustic mountaintop village of Castel Del Monte in Italy. His existence in the normally idyllic town is somewhat pathetic. Jack works at the beck and call of brusque paymaster Pavel (Johan Leyson), completing one last illegal weapon order for the beautiful Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). Jack rises and retires each day with a gun at his fingertips and extreme paranoia in his red, wearied eyes. He is a man plagued by attempts on his life, and as far as we can tell, he has no home, history or friends.
Jack is unable to truly enjoy his postcard surroundings, and as an unsympathetic protagonist, prevents the viewer from enjoying it either. This is not because the town isn’t beautiful. Corbijn’s camera constantly lingers after the narrative action of a scene has finished, simply to drink in the scenery. The whole film resembles a vast landscape photograph filled with mountains, ancient villas, cobblestones, swirling fog and green forests, with the conspicuous portrait of a strung out Clooney off to the side. As may be hinted at by the title, being American (especially an American in cinema) is to be conspicuous, to bring your own gaze upon everything you come across, never able to assimilate into any other culture, no matter where you go. It is this incongruence Clooney emanates in an admirable, highly controlled performance, providing us with a lens through which to view the setting of the film. This lens, one might argue, is that of the Hollywood action film.
Saccharine riverside picnics become strenuous, potential shoot-outs and the affections of a wide-eyed village girl (Violante Placido) are met with extreme suspicion. All of the passing villagers are possible hitmen, quaint cafés may descend into gunfight arenas, cosy cobbled alleys become escape routes and even an innocent passing butterfly can only be appreciated as ‘endangered’. Jack’s anxiety turns the picturesque into the puzzling. It doesn’t make sense for beauty to exist in a place so wrought with threat and conspiracy. In fact, it’s a little inconvenient, annoying almost, for clear and present danger to be interrupted by spontaneous love affairs, long strolls with canny, stoic Catholic priests, or fine Italian wines and cheeses. What’s more, a viewer mightn’t want Jack to enjoy them, being a generally bland character who shows only hints of, simply put, character. This is a poster-film for retirement, for “getting a life” more than it is one for Italian getaways.
As we know from viewing countless spy movies, it is impossible for an agent, killer or operative to outlive his or her career. By the logic of cinema history, Jack has limited paths to follow; he might be a killer all his life, he might die in the course of his work, or he might try to escape the cycle by attempting to kill all his connections. There is no bloodless option. The audience already knows this. They knew it before the title sequence rolled, and they certainly knew it before Jack did. The notion of a violent life leading to a violent death or, if you will ‘once a killer, always a killer’, is not a new one, however seems to be one of the foremost themes in a film where overarching meaning is otherwise thin on the ground. How disappointing. How many cautionary tales do we need regarding the perils of becoming a professional assassin? Is this really a pressing concern?
The American is paced by a gradual build-up of tension, which in itself is an admirable quality for a film to possess, however it does so at the expense of true drama. The violence of this film is staid to the point that any action or chase sequences do less to motivate the plot or the tension than they do to alleviate frustration at the otherwise meandering pace of the film. Action relief, if you will.
Whilst this is an intricately woven film in a visual sense (symbolic motifs, recurring imagery, the altering of physical appearance to mirror the internal state of the character), the script itself remains impressionistic. Conversations are short, acting exists primarily in the realm of facial expression, and even when there is dialogue, it is only present in order to suggest what is being shared between characters. The look of each character, their posture, their face and clothing, say everything else. This may come down to Corbijn’s background as a photographer. I imagine there might have been a photograph pinned up in Corbijn’s studio during filming of The American, handsomely framing the image of a moody American and a superstitious priest at a dank kitchen table. The film version of this scene seemed to me to be part of an album of shady encounters, a film truly photographic in appearance. Like a photo, I know nothing about the past or future of the encounter in each scene, and I cannot know the true thoughts or nature of those within it. All I can do is put the photographs together in chronological order to form a brief story about the present, finding patterns, seeking out recurring images, locating changes in expression and appreciating the splendour of each picture as it is presented to me. 6.5