The American

>> Sunday, September 12, 2010

A few months ago, I was out with friends and saw the stark, orange-and-black-and-white poster for an upcoming (at the time) George Clooney movie, The American, in the lobby. I made some crack about how if it was actually the kind of spy film they made in the 1950s, e.g. The Manchurian Candidate, I'd probably have to go see it, but otherwise, enh, and one of my friends replied that, actually, that was what it was apparently going to be.

They weren't quite right with that assessment, and I was way-off with mine. What I didn't know, and I don't know if my friend knew, was that The American was the second feature film from Anton Corbijn. My friend Janiece recently went on a tear about people (ab)using the word "legendary," so I sort of hate to use it here, but, shit, if taking a ton of iconic photographs that permeate the popular culture and directing a slew of similarly iconic music videos qualifies you for the word, Corbijn's a legend. I was about to start rolling off a list beginning with the famous cover of U2's The Joshua Tree, but it's easier and more accurate to quote Wikipedia:

Corbijn has photographed U2, David Bowie, Miles Davis, Björk, Captain Beefheart, Robert de Niro, Stephen Hawking, Elvis Costello, Clint Eastwood and Herbert Grönemeyer, amongst others.

Corbijn has designed album covers for U2, Depeche Mode, Nick Cave, Bryan Adams, Metallica, Therapy?, The Rolling Stones, R.E.M., The Bee Gees, Saybia and Moke.

Corbijn began his music video directing career when Palais Schaumburg asked him to direct a video. After seeing the resulting video for Hockey, the band Propaganda had Corbijn direct Dr. Mabuse. After that he directed videos for David Sylvian, Simple Minds, Echo & the Bunnymen, Golden Earring, Front 242 and Depeche Mode.

Put another way, in terms of looming large in his legend, if you're a musician and Anton Corbijn is taking snaps of you, you've very possibly arrived. (Oh, and if pictures are worth thousands of words, there are more than a few at Corbijn's website.

Anyway, I mention all this because when I heard it was an Anton Corbijn film, that completely re-prioritized it from "enh" to "I really need to see that." I missed Corbijn's first feature, a biopic about Joy Division called Control and didn't want to make the same mistake. What I knew before I walked into the theatre was that whether The American was great or garbage, it would have to be fucking gorgeous: Corbijn has, as they say, an eye; he doesn't just know how to frame an image, he has an uncanny instinct for framing an image so it's unique, so that it catches something you probably wouldn't.

I'm happy to say that The American doesn't disappoint in any way, shape or form: it not only looks as beautiful as expected, but it's a smart, well-acted film and the story works.

The plot is spartan but sufficient: George Clooney is a hitman and weaponsmith who is hiding out in Italy after nearly being murdered in Sweden. While he's hiding out, he agrees to take a contract from his contact (Johan Leysen) to make a custom rifle for an unspecified but obvious assassination--he won't have to make the hit himself, but the specifications for the weapon give it but a single function. Meanwhile, Clooney strikes up a warm-but-arm's-length friendship with a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and begins to fall for a local prostitute (Violante Placido).

The American is a thriller, but not one that hearkens back to the '50s: Corbijn is channeling the French New Wave of the '60s and the American New Wave of the '70s, with an affectionate nod or two along the way to Italians like Sergio Leone (a background appearance of Leone's classic Once Upon A Time In The West reads as a fond inside joke). Corbijn is willing to let scenes draw out, to linger on an establishing shot (the Italian locations practically deserve a cast credit), to let his actors show what they're thinking and feeling by, you know, acting instead of just talking about it. The American is a quiet film, with minimalist dialogue and a subtle, frequently absent score; conversations have a natural feel, with organic lapses and silences. The only moment of the film that I would say was the least bit heavy-handed was the very final shot (I'd rather not spoil it), and even that had me nodding appreciatively at the perfection and aptness of it (also I do need to add that, ironically, the heavy-handed symbolic detail is such a physically small detail that it had me thinking it was another reason you ought to see this one in the theatre instead of waiting for the DVD).

Speaking of theatre versus DVD: my understanding is that The American isn't doing well at the box office and is having a hard time finding an audience. I wish I could say I was surprised. But here's the deal: if you've ever been prone to complain that they don't make movies like they used to, or that movies these days all seem to be just so dumb, or that nobody makes movies for grown-ups, or any of those similar plaints, and you don't see The American in the theatre if it's playing near you, well, you can just quit your bitching, right? Because this is exactly the kind of film nobody makes any more, which may be a big part of the reason it's struggling: we've had a good twenty, thirty years of the only smart movies being foreign films or pompous arthouse flicks, and nobody knows what to do with a stylish, quiet, explosion-free movie about George Clooney as an assassin.


The bottom line is this is a damn good movie, one of the best I've had the luck of seeing this year. So if it's playing in your neighborhood, go see it. And see it soon, because I have a feeling it may not stay on screens too long.


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