REVIEW: George Clooney, The American Prove They Do Make Movies Like They Used To
Anton Corbijn's The American looks and feels like a movie made by a filmmaker who hasn't been to the movies since the '70s -- and I mean that as the highest compliment. This is Corbijn's second feature: His first was the elegiac and gorgeously shot (by Martin Ruhe) Control, based on the life story of Ian Curtis, lead singer of the influential and much-loved Manchester band Joy Division, who committed suicide at age 23 in 1980. Before Corbijn was a filmmaker, or even a director of videos for the likes of U2 and Depeche Mode, he was a photographer specializing in rock 'n' roll types as subjects; he had photographed Curtis and the other members of Joy Division early in his career, having left his native Holland for England because, as he's said in interviews, he wanted "to be where that music comes from."
Maybe The American, a contemplative thriller that's low on explosions, car chases and even dialogue, is an unlikely picture for a former rock 'n' roll photographer to make. But in its austerity and its artfully muted directness, I think it simply represents a more grown-up version of that youthful urgency -- to be where the music comes from, wherever it's coming from.
The American opens with a sequence in which George Clooney, whose character is clearly some sort of operative, shoots two people: One he needs to shoot; the other he would prefer not to shoot. Later we'll learn that his name -- or one of his names -- is Jack, and that one of his specialties is building customized weapons to exacting specifications. The movie opens in Sweden, but after those shootings, Jack decamps to the Italian countryside. His mysterious boss calls him with an assignment, and he sits down to his worktable, fitting together various gun parts with a jeweler's precision. In his heart he's a craftsman, not a fighter, but as we've already seen, he needs to be both.
He's also a butterfly enthusiast, and the women in his life -- sometimes affectionately and sometimes as a bit of a taunt -- call him Mr. Butterfly. When Jack meets the client who's put in the order for his latest firearm -- the unnervingly efficient Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), who slightly resembles Julie Christie, except with all of the edge and none of the softness -- he takes her to an idyllic, secret spot to try out the almost-finished weapon. The assignation is supposed to be purely business, but he's packed a picnic lunch. As they lounge on the grass, a translucent, grayish-cream butterfly lands on her arm -- it blends almost invisibly with the no-color cashmere dress she's wearing -- and Jack tells her, "It's endangered."
With my butterfly ears, I can hear what you're thinking: Corny dialogue alert. And maybe that line does qualify. But unlike so many movies today, The American doesn't desperately cling to dialogue as an anchor. (This beautifully succinct screenplay was adapted from Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman by Rowan Joffe, son of Roland Joffe and also the director of the upcoming Graham Greene adaptation Brighton Rock.) The American demands that you surrender to it, which I know, for some, is a code term for "It's boring." But Corbijn -- again working with cinematographer Martin Ruhe -- isn't just a former still photographer who now has to make images move. His compositions do tend to be quiet and elegant, but they're not static: He's urging us to find the movement in stillness, to feel its vibrations.
Clooney's Jack picks his way along silent, winding streets in the little Italian town where he's hiding out; some of the simple, dusky-colored stucco and brick buildings around him have probably been standing for centuries. Corbijn and Ruhe (along with the movie's editor, Andrew Hulme) keep the action so still -- even during a chase scene -- that you can almost hear those buildings whispering their long-held secrets. (The American, as its title subtly implies, is actually rather European.) And a single miniature detail in the movie's final shot is also, I suspect, something of a challenge thrown down by Corbijn, his way of saying, "I dare you to watch this on your iPod."
At the screening I attended, some of my fellow critics were murmuring about the movie's similarity to Antonioni's The Passenger, but The American left me thinking of less openly arty pictures like Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop and Richard C. Sarafian's Vanishing Point, movies that we now (rightly) consider art but that used to just be entertainment. Like The American, those movies may be a bit oblique in the way they chase after existentialist truths, but they also have a hushed sense of urgency. You can see all of that urgency in Clooney's disquieting performance. This is a character study of a man who, it first appears, has no center -- he finds that center even as we do, and watching Clooney wander toward his character's lost self is one of the great pleasures of the movie. Clooney overplays nothing -- he appears to show shifts in emotion by changing the shadow in his eyes rather moving the muscles in his face. Even his hair, a salt-and-pepper mix, is stranded between two wholly different lives, the then and the now.
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