By Don Simpson | August 31, 2010
Director: Anton Corbijn
Writer: Rowan Joffe (screenplay), Martin Booth (novel)
Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli
Jack (George Clooney) is, by all accounts and purposes, an American. His career as an assassin is high risk but offers significant financial return. In other words: Jack, like all good ‘mericans, likes guns and money. (There must be a Gang of Four reference somewhere around here…) Jack tries to forget history, living life only in the present; Jack also seems to expect that others will forget his past as well. (Note: The American utilizes Jack to symbolize the United States just as The Quiet American utilizes Pyle.)
The American begins in a tranquil and secluded snowbound cabin in Sweden where it seems Jack believes (or at least hopes) he has left his career behind. Unfortunately for Jack, his past catches up with him and he soon finds himself on the run again. Jack makes his way to Castel del Monte, an Italian community in the Province of L’Aquila in Abruzzo where very little has changed since the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, to hide out. (Castel del Monte lies within the Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga which assures that the land surrounding the town will remain forever wild and preserves Castel del Monte in a near pristine state.) In other words, history has engulfed Jack in terms of both his career and his choice of hideout. Jack does not hide very well: not a religious man, Jack nonetheless accepts the friendship of the nosy town priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli); unable to decline a well-paying gig from his boss (Johan Leysen), Jack accepts an assignment to build a custom semi-automatic rifle for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten); and incapable of avoiding beautiful women, Jack commences a relationship with an impossibly perfect prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido). His past rears its ugly shadow for one final showdown. Jack will either be absolved from his past and permitted to live the rest of his life as a free man or he will be sentenced to eternal damnation.
Based on Martin Booth’s 1990 novel A Very Private Gentleman, Anton Corbijn’s The American visually channels two Italian masters of the cinema: Michelangelo Antonioni and Sergio Leone. From the pacing to the cinematography to the acting performances to the mise-en-scene, The American is by no means a product of this cinematic era. The plot may sound like a spy thriller (ala Bourne Identity) but Corbijn shows very little interest in suspense or drama (The American may in fact be the anti-Bourne or anti-Salt); Corbijn only cares about Jack’s current psychology and the environment in which he presently exists (even Jack’s history and motivations are kept a mystery). There is very little plot and there is very little action; The American is all about mood and metaphor. The American is as anti-Hollywood as films get nowadays, it is first and foremost a European art film.
By the way, I do realize that comparing Corbijn to one of the greatest filmmakers of all time (Antonioni) is a bit of a stretch. Corbijn comes nowhere near the psychological depth or cinematic immaculateness of L’Avventura, Red Desert or The Passenger (three cinematic masterpieces); but he comes much closer than any other filmmaker has come in the last couple decades.