A lonely hitman hides out in an Italian village and falls in love with a prostitute.
When it was released, Anton Corbijn’s ‘The American’ asked a lot of an audience that had maybe only ever seen George Clooney be a charming and sexy hero. He’d done serious work before, and had demonstrated that there was far more to him than an easy-on-the-eye leading man who looked really good in a suit and who pulled off heists with his pals. Even with that, though, the audience had to come to terms with the fact that one of the first things he does in ‘The American’ is shoot a defenceless woman in the back. ‘The American’ is an arthouse film with a big-name star bereft of makeup, showing his age, his talent and perhaps a little of his soul.
Clooney plays Edward, a gunsmith who hides out in a quiet Italian village while he completes a job. A man of very few words, Edward is a dedicated craftsman, and he efficiently refines a rifle with care and precision, initially without remorse for the job for which it will be used. He has been hired by Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), an assassin who looks different each time she appears, presumably an asset in a job like hers. She is impressed by the quality of his work but takes the measure of him: after paying him off she suggests he should use the money to buy a retirement clock.
A loner, Edward is isolated physically and spiritually, which perhaps explains why the only connections he makes are with a prostitute (Violante Placido) and a priest (Paolo Bonacelli). The priest wants to save his soul; the prostitute may just save his life. Edward discusses the nature of sin with the priest and has angry sex with the prostitute.
As a gifted photographer, Corbijn knows how to compose a memorable frame, even when some of the elements are mundane (a telephone booth, a café table). There are some shots here that echo Edward Hopper paintings (fitting for a film about loneliness).
Taken from a little-known novel, ‘A Very Private Gentleman’ by Martin Booth, ‘The American’ has the structure of a western: a gunman rides into town looking for peace, but his past catches up to him. There are several references to Sergio Leone films, but Corbijn’s sensibilities are very different to Leone’s. There is no flamboyance or perversion of the genre here; filmed in winter in a near-deserted mountainous village off the beaten path, ‘The American’ is cold and stark. The images have a definite beauty, but it is the harsh beauty of grey stone walls, mist rolling in the early morning, an empty café at night, the red light of a brothel.
It feels like a throwback to European postwar films with deeply conflicted protagonists. It is filled with Christian iconography: crucifixes, sacrificial lambs. It is in fact quite a spiritual film. At the beginning Edward drives through a long dark tunnel toward the light; he visits a glade by the river that another character refers to as paradise. He has an obsession with butterflies, symbolic of his own gradual change from an uncaring man of violence to a man who can say “I love you”. Mind you, the film wants to have its spiritual cake and eat it too. The priest has his own sinful past. The prostitute is exquisite and has a heart of gold: she doesn’t even charge him.
Having seen Clooney be smooth-talking, smarmy and smart, you may be a little shocked by him here. His role here is closer to that in ‘Michael Clayton’ than anything else he has done. His Oscar-nominated performance in ‘The Descendants’ looks like a piece of wild over-acting in comparison to how he is in ‘The American’. Thin, almost gaunt, saying little and looking haunted, he gives a quiet, understated performance without resorting to his usual tricks. He is particularly good in the final scene, when he manages to convey anger, regret, sadness and love, all without uttering a word.
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- Sundance Unveils 2014 Premieres, Documentary Premieres (variety.com)
- Casting in Valencia City of Arts and Sciences for Tomorrows Land film starring George Clooney (valenciatouristguides.wordpress.com)
- Hail Caesar! Coen brothers may recruit Clooney for Roman epic (theguardian.com)
- The American (cinemaburn.wordpress.com)
- You: Sundance 2014: Shelton, Corbijn and Gibney lead premieres section (latimes.com)
- Sundance 2014 First Images from LOVE IS STRANGE, A MOST WANTED MAN, NICK OFFERMAN: AMERICAN HAM, and THE ONE I LOVE (collider.com)
- “The American” splendor (somecamerunning.typepad.com)
- Robert Pattinson to shoot another film in Toronto (globalnews.ca)