Film Review: The American

Anton Corbijn’s plodding attempt at a ’60s Euro-thriller makes for a scenic travelogue but offers little in the way of drama or intrigue.

In many respects, Anton Corbijn’s The American resembles a more conventional version of Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, the terrific (and terrifically divisive) riff on vintage European thrillers from the ’60s and ’70s that came and went last year. That picture followed a stone-faced assassin (Isaach de Bankolé) as he carried out an unspecified mission that took him on a picturesque journey across Spain, from the bustling streets of Madrid to a remote bunker deep in the Andalusian countryside. Beautifully shot by Christopher Doyle and scored to the stirring atonal sounds of alt-metal acts Boris and Sunn O))), The Limits of Control was a hypnotic exercise in style, which both toyed with and paid homage to the movies it was inspired by.

Substitute George Clooney for de Bankolé and Italy for Spain and you’ve got the basic premise for The American, which dispatches Clooney’s hired gun from Rome to a postcard-perfect village nestled in the hills of Abruzzo to complete an assignment that’s shrouded in some secrecy. There, he befriends the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and strikes up a romance with a comely prostitute (Violante Placido) while avoiding a Swiss assassin who has been hired to rub him out as payback for almost fouling up a previous hit. In terms of its content, The American is far less inscrutable than The Limits of Control, which seemed to take great pleasure in confounding the audience’s expectations. At its core, this is essentially another “one last job” movie, with Clooney realizing that he wants to quit the game before he’s forcibly retired.

But the execution is just offbeat enough to set it apart from the Hollywood norm. A photographer by trade, Corbijn (who made his feature directorial debut with the 2007 Ian Curtis biopic Control) tells the story through a series of carefully composed still frames with minimal camera movement. And where most movies of this type expend a good deal of energy on filming the art of killing—choreographing elaborate action set-pieces filled with gunfire and daring stunts—The American treats murder as something sudden and almost banal. Corbijn is more interested in the quiet, tense moments that precede an act of violence rather than the act itself. In the movie’s best scene, Clooney is sitting alone in an isolated café and gradually realizes that he may have wandered into a trap. As he scans his surroundings, trying to guess which direction the bullet might come from, Corbijn positions him on the edges of the frame, emphasizing how exposed he feels.

Like his friend and frequent collaborator Steven Soderbergh, Clooney has long made a point of alternating mainstream studio fare with personal passion projects, most of which are inspired by the films and television shows of his youth. (Lest we forget, this is the same guy who convinced CBS to bankroll a live television production of the Cold War-era chestnut Fail Safe and picked as his directorial debut an off-kilter biopic about the host of “The Gong Show.”) With The American, Clooney and Corbijn are clearly working under the influence of such ’60s European auteurs as Jean-Pierre Melville and Michelangelo Antonioni, whose own 1975 American-goes-abroad odyssey The Passenger is an obvious reference point.

Unfortunately, Corbijn is no Melville and Clooney is no Alain Delon. A terrific movie star, the actor thrives when playing a determined man of action with a quick wit and/or a clearly stated goal—think Michael Clayton, Syriana or even his stellar vocal performance in last year’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. When he tries to assume a more passive, introspective persona (as in Soderbergh’s ill-fated remake of Solaris), he barely registers a pulse onscreen. Some actors can say volumes with a single expression—Clooney usually requires at least a line or two of dialogue as well.

Re-teaming with his regular director of photography Martin Ruhe, Corbijn captures some beautiful images of this rustic Italian village and the surrounding countryside. But the lovely scenery can’t quite make up for the film’s thin characterizations and overreliance on gimmicky visual metaphors (most notably the recurring use of butterfly imagery). While Corbijn may have been able to mimic the style and pacing of a ’60s European thriller, he hasn’t mastered their sense of mystery and intrigue. One got the sense with those films that there was always more going on beneath the surface, whereas with The American the proceedings are fairly obvious and one-note. Kudos to Clooney and Corbijn for bringing a clear artistic vision to this well-intentioned effort, but perhaps they weren’t the right people to carry it off.