Directed by Anton Corbijn
The Grade: C+
Midway through The American, we see a few moments of Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West playing in the background. This is wildly appropriate for two reasons; firstly, the Leone style of limited dialogue, long, stark, and sterile passages, and wide angle shots mixed with extreme close-ups is honorably recreated in The American. But more interestingly, Once Upon a Time in the West is appropriate to allude to because it took Henry Fonda, one of the most beloved and gentle figures in Hollywood history, and turned him into an unlikable killer—which is exactly what George Clooney is in The American.
Clooney plays Jack (or Edward, depending who he’s talking to), a sometimes assassin and/or crafter of extremely specific weaponry, who’s hiding out in Sweden enjoying semi-retirement. The movie opens with an attempt on Jack’s life, and Jack reacts in a way that ensures the audience loathes his character from the get-go. Quickly relocating to a small Italian village, Jack gets a contract to provide a rifle for a mysterious and beautiful young woman. Most of the next hour plus is spent watching Jack make a gun, walk about town, and have sex with a prostitute named Clara.
The director, Anton Corbijn, gambles that a good film can still be crafted around the story of an unlikable rogue trying to escape his fate, and normally he’d be right. But when your main character is both unlikable and boring? Well, now you’ve got problems.
To his credit, Corbijn still made an interesting movie, I just don’t know that “good” is an appropriate term to describe it. This is only Corbijn’s second feature, and the first time he’s ever left his rock ‘n’ roll comfort zone. He’s spent the majority of his career as one of the world’s best rock photographers (he’s likely taken every photo of U2 you’ve ever seen, including the great cover of their 2000 album “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” which featured the band in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport), and his first film, 2007’s Control, was a biopic of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division. Adapted from the novel “A Very Private Gentleman,” by Martin Booth, The American is the first time Corbijn has ever worked in fiction.
Even though very little happens, The American is still mildly enthralling, if only for the expertly crafted visuals and Leone-like pacing. Corbijn’s photography has always thrived on the use of negative space, and The American follows the same aesthetic. Clooney is constantly tucked to one side of the frame, with the background typically being the main subject of each carefully orchestrated shot.
The movie concludes on a few interesting high notes, though Jack’s inevitable romantic interest for Clara verges on the ridiculous. As far as the viewer can discern, the only quality Clara possesses is that she spends most of her screen time in various states of undress. The American is, as one would expect from a photographer director, beautiful to look at, but it’s ultimately a fairly sterile and nihilistic experience.