The dark stillness of the American

August 30, 2010

With the American, Anton Corbijn follows up his debut feature Control, a movie about Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, with a thriller far removed from the music world where he first made his name. It seemed odd that an artist so attached to music (Corbijn has been involved in rock photography, album art and music video for over 30 years) would all of a sudden turn to directing no one less than George Clooney in a suspense movie, yet Corbijn hinted as much in an interview promoting Control back in 2007. “I’d like to do another film, an action film with more tension, a thriller, if you like,” he told contactmusic.com.

Corbijn has indeed delivered on that, but he has stayed true to the slow-paced seventies-era feel of Control, which felt like an animated version of his many photographs of Joy Division. It certainly seems ironic, having started his moving image career making music videos for that thing that revolutionized movies, MTV. It turns out Corbijn has produced a film that goes against the tropes of what many expect of a contemporary thriller. Despite the A-list Hollywood actor fronting the American this film comes from a world of the more atmospheric cinema of European cinema (Corbijn is Dutch after all) and, again, the seventies (just look at the poster art that seems to recall the feeling of films like 1974’s the Parallax View). The American fills a viewer up like a fine and tenderly cooked meal, instead of the usual greasy junk from Hollywood that only tastes good in the mouth, but soon enough makes you want to throw up.

There is a mesmerizing pace to the American. Corbijn allows the camera to linger longer on the takes, impregnating the scenes with emotional and psychological depth. You get a chance to watch the actors act, whereas current Hollywood directors would take the easier way out with tightly associated cuts on focused images (see Michael Bay). Corbijn goes against this sort of lamebrain manipulation that insults the intelligence of the audience to make a rich experience, and Clooney adapts to the pace with amazing skill. As Jack, the titular American with a shady past, Clooney invites the audience in to his character’s thoughts, a dark place to venture as the film lays out in a sudden burst of violence at the very start.

Clooney plays Jack, an agent with an unnamed organization, whose business is killing. He sets out for that all-too-familiar last job. His assignment takes him to a small, labyrinthine Italian village where he falls for a prostitute (Violante Placido), who returns the sentiment, and befriends a priest (Paolo Bonacelli), who himself knows about walking that difficult line of morality. Even though Jack is all too familiar with the dangers of becoming emotionally attached to innocents, try as he might, he can help but accept these souls into his life during a job that inevitably proves very risky.

As great a performance Clooney unleashes on the screen, Corbijn deserves the credit for giving this story, based on Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, the respect it deserves as a satisfying thriller. There are five or six distinct moments of pulse-pounding action, which could never be as thrilling as they turn out to be had they not been sandwiched between deliberate moments of stillness, hence the film’s dynamic, almost musical quality.

Most key are scenes where Corbijn lets the camera linger. During these moments, Corbijn composes images not unlike the photography with which he first made his name. They are images that play with light and dark and focus on a subject who carries a weighty presence. Corbijn’s blog where the still image at left is taken from, features more still images he took on the set. They have been compiled in the companion photo book, Inside the American.

Appropriately, and very much like a European movie, the dialogue in the American is very sparse. Some might fault the film for this, saying it results in little character development and a confusing plot. But there is something to be said for the mystery it invites. Hollywood movies are so caught up with exposition, it can sap the mood out of a film. What Corbijn does is impregnate his images with a delicious sense of mystery that offers to stimulate the mind instead of deaden it, as most action pics oblige themselves to do.

Who knows how well this film will do ahead of the Labor Day weekend, where viewers will also have the choice to see Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, a take on another kind of 70s film: the decidedly less cerebral exploitation film. I doubt the American will even surpass the Expendables, the Sylvester Stallone ensemble action flick that had dominated the box office two weeks in a row. No wonder Focus Features has decided to open the film a couple of days before the weekend. For those who want their action served with some intelligence and a deeper sense of atmosphere, there is always the American, and God bless Corbijn for coming up with that alternative.

The American opens in wide release this Wednesday and is rated R.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

5 Responses to “The dark stillness of the American”

  1. Will Says:

    What a great review. This was exactly what I was looking for in a detailed but refrained description of the film. Very well done.

    • indieethos Says:

      Thanks! I’m mostly a music critic, but I love film and studied it in school during a Master’s degree. I hope to continue doing justice to great alternative cinema like this one.

  2. Goddard Says:

    Aw, this was a quite quality post. In theory I’d like to write like this too – taking time and true work to generate a good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot.

  3. tom Says:

    appreciate your taking the time to write an honest review.


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