Anton Corbijn,

The Establishing Shot: The American Review

Thursday, November 25, 2010 Craig Grobler 0 Comments

The American ReviewI’ve seen The American twice now and feel comfortable that what you are about to read will still be valid in 28 years.

When posters for The American started popping up I was intrigued. I loved the two tone minimalistic poster design. It was reminiscent of those cool 70s posters for adult spy thrillers that introduced the world to me, full of high intrigue dramas and twists and someone my I age would not fully comprehend at the time.

The American
However the bits of the trailer that I saw made The American look like a by the numbers CIA (or other Agency) hitman on the run/having a jolly in Europe that we have all seen before. I should at this point mention that the early trailer I saw (Trailer 1 over here is incredibly misleading - I can understand why the expositionary American voice over was inserted but I felt it did a disservice to The American and left me confused when watching the film. Trailer 2 below (which I found while writing this) gives a much better feel for what the film is actually like.

So trailer 1 combined with:
  1. I haven’t really enjoyed the bulk of George Clooney’s work lately and passed on most of them. Look to be fair George Clooney is not without a considerable amount of charm and talent, but lately he seems more comfortable in the lighter roles, the roles that parody himself and the belief system that Hollywood has built up over the last 20 years.

    Now I’m not saying that he isn’t a good actor or made serious films - I loved Michael Clayton and everything about it is good, especially George Clooney. And of course anyone in a job wants to stretch themselves and be known for more than 1 trick so I understand his need to extend his range.
  2. I didn’t really enjoy Anton Corbijn’s earlier feature Control. Despite the great performances. The subject matter went over my head. I have absolutely no emotional attachment to Joy Division and didn’t think the visuals alone weren’t strong enough to carry the film for the entire bleak 122 mins.
However The American was adapted by Rowan Joffe, and I was completely blown away by early footage of his big screen debut feature Brighton Rock as well as suitably impressed with his take on film creativity - as well as curiosity to see what Clooney and Corbijn cooked up with one of my favourite genres was enough of a draw for me.

The American
We open on a serene snow-laden Nordic winter wonderland; in a rustic cabin we find a naked lady draped across a bed playfully messing with George Clooney’s hair as he sits comfortably but slightly aloof on the floor in front of a wood fire. A little later, dressed and smiling they make their way out the cabin into the snow.

They come across some human foot prints “Hunters? No they would travel in pairs” she offers. Thereafter their tranquility is brutally shattered and in what follows we learn that George Clooney has finally taken a role that isn’t a humorous stab at self parody and a rehash of the formulaic "hero" archetype we usually see. It's Clooney but as we have never seen him before. We also learn that The American is capably trained in the art of death and inhabits a world of intrigue that justifies his constant state of paranoia, isolation and edginess. And so with a bang rather than a whimper begins Anton Corbijn’s The American.

By the time the titles were rolling I’m ecstatic. The American has a really strong start; I’m going with it and loving it.

We then follow The American as he goes to ground in a small Italian village where we meet the bulk of the cast including the wonderfully captured Italian countryside. This is not the Italy that you see in most films or the travel ads; this is small town, rural Italy.

The gist of it and you’ll understand why I feel Trailer 1 is misleading. The American is an anonymous craftsman; he’s not an assassin - but he does live in that world and has all the same highly dangerous enemies as assassins.

The American
He is someone who has lived in that world for so long he is isolated, trusts no one and on constant edge - ready to react to a click of a gun or a footfall behind him. Clooney is marvellous in the role. Monosyllabic and convincingly unable to connect with anyone unless it’s on his terms. He is charmless, efficient and brutal at the drop of a pin. He is James Bond without the glamour.

The AmericanPretty soon The American has taken on a new assignment in the village. But as recent events continue to haunt him he feels the net closing in on him. At the same time he has attracted the attention of some of the town locals; including a priest intent on making The American repent his sins (Paolo Bonacelli) and a gorgeous young prostitute falling for The American (Violante Placido), old enemies reappear and a possible new threat rears its head - as The American wants to leave this world behind him - kicking his paranoia and instincts into overdrive.

The American
Performances are top notch and Corbijn’s minimalistic cinematography plays well to The American’s Spartan philosophy. I also enjoyed the measured pacing of the story allowing one to absorb detail as The American’s world develops. I particularly liked the shots of The American plying his craft; it's a very interesting but often ignored aspect of the world of assassins.

However in the interest of fairness I should mention 2 niggling points that I thought let the film down slightly (apart from Trailer 1). And I’m only mentioning this as I was surprised at the dichotomy of an otherwise faultless visually detailed orientated production letting these slip through – The American’s tattoos looked too new, particularly his fake military“Ex Gladio Equitas” tattoo - which establishes his military background. He would have got this when he was young(er) and it would look dated, especially when compared the newer tattoo on his back..

A related but slightly larger issue for me was the heavy handed symbolism. Don’t get me wrong I think there is a distinct lack of visual analogy in contemporary film-making but one of the consistent themes was laid on a little too heavy and not since Blade Runner's Rick Deckard’s unicorn 28 years ago has there been a more blatant use of a metaphor. My understanding is that in Martin Booth’s book A Very Private Gentleman the symbol in question plays a larger role in The American’s façade, which the film dropped for a more updated and believable past time - photography. The American is a wonderful film and I can't figure out why the symbolism was given such prominence, subtly done would have been more in line with the film's zeitgeist, Clooney's performance and possibly would have had greater effect.

Anton Corbijn talks a little bit about the tattoos on his blog over here you can also see some very cool behind the scenes photography there as well.

The Skinny
The American is a class production, with more in common with the super cool international spy thrillers of the 70s than a poster - it's shot with both style and existential substance and really I hope it signals a return to film making for adults that don’t need every little detail spelt out for them or the Hollywood playbook to enjoy a decent story.

The AmericanThe American will be on a big screen near you this Friday 26 November. It's our pick of this week's releases as well as in our top 10 for 2010.

Director: Anton Corbijn
Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Paolo Bonacelli , Thekla Reuten

More info:
Over at The American website.