London 2010: THE AMERICAN review


The American
, Anton Corbijn's second feature, stars George Clooney in perhaps his least Clooney-esque appearance yet, as a gunsmith struggling to leave his murky past behind. An undeniable screen presence, the typical Clooney acting tics are left largely behind in his bleakest and possibly most affecting performance to date.

When Jack's attempt at a life outside crime in a peaceful Sweden retreat is abruptly terminated, he heads to the picturesque Italian village of Castel Del Monte to hide out. Once there, he accepts one last job to supply a mysterious female assassin, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), with a custom-made weapon. Meanwhile, questioning his own empty existence he reluctantly strikes up relationships with Clara (Violante Placido), a local prostitute, and the friendly town priest (Paolo Bonacelli). Struggling to fight an ingrained sense of distrust, and constantly at pains to avoid detection, Jack's existential dilemmas form the core of Corbijn's stark and gripping movie.

Low on dialogue and high on suspense, The American makes no bones about its structural roots in American and Italian westerns, most obviously alluded to when Jack enters a bar where Once Upon A Time In The West is playing on the TV. Jack rides into town as a loner, treated with curiosity and a certain level of suspicion, with the clock ticking toward an inevitable showdown. Though inherently beautiful, Corbijn avoids shooting the landscape and villages with a superficial, tourism-friendly lens. The streets are often wet and deserted in a re-appropriation of the tumble weed strewn ghost towns of the old west. Noises that would blend into the background buzz of a city are rendered in this quiet backwater as nervy, jolting reminders of Jack's permanent state of unease.

As with Leone's westerns, sparse dialogue means the characters are as much defined by their actions as their words; Jack's weapon crafting becomes as mesmerizing for the viewer as it is for him. Fred Zinnemann's Day of the Jackal comes to mind as the meticulous preparation leading up to an assassination is documented in fascinating detail. Though here it's a resolutely one-sided tale, with background information pared down to the bare minimum required for comprehension of Jack's immediate predicament. Indeed, the minimalist approach to exposition is one of the film's most graceful successes. Much is hinted at, implied, and ambiguity rules the day - so we quickly become as wary as Jack is of what lies around the corner.

Clooney convinces in the title role with a nuanced and subtle performance that conveys Jack's emotional repression with skill. Whilst the star power hanging over him is unavoidable, it's clear from an atypically harsh action in the film's pre-credits sequence that he's straining on the leash. The only casting misstep is with Thekla Reuten, who whilst more than capable never quite looks like a cold-blooded killer. Or at least, she looks like one from an altogether glossier, more facile production.

 Tackling very different material form 2007's Control, Corbijn manages to create a unique proposition out of some extremely familiar elements, finding emotional resonance in actions and images rather than dialogue. In what will no doubt prove a more commercially viable endeavor than his previous feature, it by no means sacrifices a distinct (still developing) directorial voice, and promises much for the future.
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