The American is photographer and director Anton Corbijn’s second full length feature film. The film stars George Clooney as an assassin hiding-out in rural Italy after his last operation went seriously awry. Forming a relationship with a prostitute named Clara, Clooney’s character Jack or Edward, (we are never conclusively told which name is correct,) seeks to leave the life of a hitman behind. Before his retirement he agrees to carry out one last job to manufacture and deliver a gun to a fellow operative.
Undoubtedly The American is a visually stunning film, seen not only in the casting of Clooney as the mysterious stranger and Thekla Reuten as the beautiful femme fatale Mathilde but also Anton Corbijn’s dramatic cinematography. The director’s background as a photographer and music video director is apparent throughout the film’s 105 minutes as we are treated to impressive shots of Sweden’s snow covered wilderness and the beauty of rural Italy with the Gran Sasso mountain range and the town of Castel de Monte. Beauty also happens to be one of the film’s main thematic concerns. Clooney’s character has an interest in butterflies and sports a large tattoo of the insect on his back. An extremely rare variety of butterfly lands on Clara during a romantic picnic, the butterfly not unlike Jack is in danger of becoming extinct.
Regardless of the film’s flawless appearance The American is far from perfect. Ostensibly an attempt by Hollywood to recreate a European style movie the film lacks the psychological depth to adequately achieve this. The shots of Clooney building the specialist firearm are supposed to convey his craftsmanship, inefficiency as a hitman and inner turmoil at having to move on but instead come across as ponderous and dull. Moreover, the film suffers of a clichéd plotline: isn’t the story of a criminal who has made the decision to give up his way and life before carrying out one last assignment an all too familiar scenario?
The American’s exploration of guilt and the possibility of redemption are brought out in a hackneyed manner when Jack is meets a local priest (Paolo Bonacell) who also hides the dark secret of having fathered a child. Whilst it is understandable that a movie about a lone assassin would contain a fair amount of detachment between characters the one apparently genuine relationship, between Jack and Clara, (Violante Placido) is also insufficiently developed. The lack of any meaningful dialogue between the two leaves us with the impression that their relationship, which is intended to be both authentic and loving, is purely based on sex.
That is not to say that the film is all bad there is some wonderfully dramatic camerawork on display. The fragility of life and the terrible beauty which lie at the film’s black heart are exemplified in a haunting shot as the exquisite face of the fatally wounded Mathilde is spattered with blood. Gorgeous George’s understated performance is enjoyable to watch and is carried out with a certain amount of style and brooding masculinity.
However, aside from the film’s heart stopping opening sequence, which brought audible gasps from the audience, there are few surprises to be found in The American. The movie follows a reliable but ultimately unrewarding pattern of a commonplace Hollywood thriller. Stunning camerawork and beautiful people aside The American fails to live up to the lofty standards of elegant appearance and unlike Clooney’s Jack fails to hit the target.