I had to crack a smile while sitting in an Orlando, FL multi-plex watching a steady mix of families and retirees filing into the theater expecting to see George Clooney in the Bourne Identity and instead getting treated to a carefully paced film noir. Upon leaving the theater I heard several audible groans and at least one, “Well it got good reviews…” Seems that Danny Ocean tricked them again.
The American is perhaps the first hit man movie that owes a creative debt to Michelangelo Antonioni. The thoughtful framing of the shots, the deliberate pacing and the central character’s existential dilemma all called to mind the late Italian master. Anton Corbijn’s sure handed direction and Martin Ruhe’s precise photography merge with their story to give the film a focused synergy that allows it to overcome some of the script’s well worn storylines (the hit man’s last job, the prostitute with a 14 karat heart, the wise priest) that may have sunk a lesser film. The stark, isolating landscapes and Corbijn’s signature overhead shots work well in mirroring the mind state Clooney’s character finds himself in. Clooney anchors the film with a restrained, humorless and at times physical performance. Watching him systematically assemble a highly specialized assassin’s rifle tells you as much about his character as a scene where he withholds his trademark smirk after telling a priest, “I don’t think God is interested in me Father.”
The film isn’t all hard edges and heavy-handed conversation, Corbijn softens the blow by introducing two incredibly beautiful women to the central plot and employing a European approach to sex (full frontal nudity, sex scenes that are allowed to play out past a montage of kisses and moans) that has the rare effect of using sex to reveal something more about the characters while also actually being sexy.
Corbijn uses the quiet of a Northern Italian backdrop and the withholding of information to build a steady tension. He is unafraid of silence, uses little to no music and allows the scenes plenty of space – all of which brings the viewer further into the world of boredom and paranoia that this character inhabits. When the action does occur it is all the more exciting for sneaking up on you and reminding you who the man you’ve been lulled into sympathizing with is – someone who kills for money.
The film isn’t without flaws. There is a very convenient, recurring butterfly motif, there is one too many scenes with the all-knowing Priest but I was consistently impressed by the decisions Corbijn made (helped by his very talented cast and crew) in delivering a quality, intellectual thriller.