The American Review
Anton Corbijn’s move into feature film making presumably came about as an extension of his work as a famous photographer and video-film maker during the 1980s, working most notably and defining the look of the moment with U2 and Depeche Mode. It’s surprising then that, as a filmmaker, the distinctive qualities of his photography – grainy, high contrast black-and-white, sometimes blurred or experimentally altered to establish a dark moodiness – is almost completely absent from his films. His first feature film, Control, a biopic of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, if it was far from the experimental grainy style of his still photography, was at least in black-and-white and, set in the music scene of the period, certainly adhered to Corbin’s area of expertise. What then are we to make of The American, a film in widescreen colour ‘Scope format, starring one of Hollywood’s biggest name actors, George Clooney, a film that is effectively an espionage thriller? Well, if nothing else, it demonstrates that Corbijn is a fine filmmaker in whatever style he chooses to work.
More than showing any Corbijn influence however, The American would appear to be more of a vehicle for its star, demonstrating the distinct European influence that Clooney and his close friends have been ambitiously bringing to the mainstream US film industry, albeit often with mixed results. The film suffers a little in this respect, not being entirely successful in how it blends a typically formulaic thriller storyline with European arthouse sensibilities. With little in the way of exposition, largely silent but brimming over with existential rumination, The American has Melville written all over it, keeping the viewer gripped more by what is going on in the interior worlds of the main characters than in the thin and not entirely convincing thriller storyline that gives rise to such fatalistic considerations.
From the outset, Clooney’s character, Jack, is clearly a man on the run – a man of mystery who isn’t even safe in the remote wilderness of Sweden, where he is hiding out in a log cabin with a beautiful woman in tow, but he clearly has other more serious concerns on his mind. Sure enough, after a failed attempt on his life by hired killers that Jack seems to be ruthlessly capable of dealing with, he makes his way across Europe to Italy. Making contact there with his facilitator, Jack accepts another assignment and sets up base in a remote Italian mountain village, posing as a photographer for an American magazine. He keeps to himself and divulges little to only a few people who make the effort to try and get to know him, a priest and a prostitute – now there’s an interesting contrast – but Mr Butterfly or Signore Farfalla, as he becomes known (he bears the tattoo of a butterfly between his shoulder blades, and despite appearances has a similar delicate, sensitive personality with a tendency to flit from one place to the next, leaving little trace of his presence) is wary of people who ask too many questions and try to get to know him, and in his profession, you can understand why.
Quite what the profession is becomes clear as the film progresses, even if the nature and motives of his employers or their eventual aims remain vague and unexplained. Not that they need to be. This is not the typical spy thriller in the Bourne mould, with elaborate conspiracies and secret governmental programmes. There may indeed by such a shadowy background, but it simply isn’t essential to know about it. It’s enough to hint at such matters and leave the real concern of the film to operate at a character and interpersonal level. Much of the film then is taken up with Mr Butterfly going about his work, establishing a daily routine while taking all the necessary precautions, the film revelling in the sheer beauty of the mountain location and the quaintness of the maze of cobblestoned streets in the picturesque little village perched on high in such an exquisite location. With plenty of eye-candy and European-film levels of nudity courtesy of the lovely Violante Placido, there’s more than enough here to keep the viewer in the thrall of its charm, without having to know exactly what is going on.
Or at least it may be enough for some viewers. Personally, I’d have been more than happy to just wallow in the wonderful atmosphere and the more generalised esoteric considerations of the clash in sensibilities that an American operative in Europe suggests without there necessarily having to be a conventional resolution. Clearly however this is not Antonioni and a mainstream American cinema audience is going to expect the film to be little bit more forthcoming in its rationale and, inevitably, its action sequences and bloodletting. These are handled well admittedly, punctuating the film at the right points, with a coolness and silent efficiency that is in keeping with the tone of the film and its characters. The American however doesn’t always bear the weight of such literal realism, and credibility is somewhat strained by all the spies and assassins congregating in a small Italian mountain village – you would expect characters looking like Clooney and Placido to be a little out of place and their activities to raise more than just a few eyebrows with the local population. At the very least however, even this clash in filmmaking styles, between the American and European, raises interesting questions and creates an intriguing dialectic within the film itself that leads to an inevitable but beautifully cinematic conclusion.