With his sophmore film, The American, director Anton Corbijn, who has previously worked on music videos for U2, Depeche Mode, Metallica and Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), proves to be a somewhat narrow-minded amateur concerning long-form narrative.
When I first saw the film, I was impressed by the disciplined editing, what I thought to be an aesthetic choice for maintaining most shots for several seconds before cutting to something else. The film itself is both aware of the passing of time and interested in sharing that with the audience a la the insert of the clockface in the cafe.
As I rewatched the film and listened to the director’s commentary, I realized just how shallow the movie really was.
The American begins with a still shot of a snowy landscape and then cuts to a cabin in the woods, a piano melody slowly taking over as we watch two lovers naked in front of the cabin’s fireplace. Then as they walk across a frozen lake, holding hands they’re fired on by some camouflaged hitmen and then, our protagonist, Jack shoots his lover.
So what we get in the first ten minutes of the film is a peaceful scene between lovers, violence erupts and Jack kills an innocent life because that’s who he is but he wants that original cabin love. At least, that’s what we’re expected to understand and sympathize with for the entire movie. The story of a man who wants out, who wants redemption for a life of sin and killing.
But that’s what we’re told. Over and over again. From the kind, small town wisdom-spouting priest in Castel De Monte and from the prostitute with a heart of gold that Jack falls in love with: escape, don’t let your history and past define you and so on.
That Jack shoots the woman in the first part is cheapened by the fact that he never does it again. We have no real character represented here with a complex dual nature or conflicting desires/vocations. He shoots the woman and that’s it. After that, we’re supposed to understand how serious his work is and how much his work has affected him.
The film could’ve been so much more if, at the picnic scene, the intense acting by Clooney climaxed in an actual through-the-picnic-basket killing and so on. But the film seems satisfied with its one-dimensional associations, including an opening credits scene where Jack drives through a tunnel that goes on and on until we see the light at the end. Then as he exits the tunnel, the screen is overtaken in bright white light, a foreshadowing of the neat and tidy butterfly redemption to come.
These one plus one associations define the film whether it’s an insert of a newspaper clipping describing the murders of prostitutes followed by suspicion of a prostitute with a handgun or the popping motor of a scooter that pops again for effect in a shootout.
Or the whistling of a leaving train which segues into the train whistle in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West playing in a cafe that Jack visits. There’s also some pointless landscape shots that seem to do nothing more than pad the empty space left by the bare narrative, that cry for cinematic justification other than “it’s pretty. i like it” which is exactly what you hear from Corbijn on the director’s commentary.
What’s more, you’ve got a few seconds of a bird’s eye shot of the labyrinthe Castel De Monte, then the camera cuts to nothing else other than a bird flying, then back to the bird’s POV. Blink, blink. That sort of thing can work when it’s incorporated dramatically or thematically into the film such as in Jim Jarmusch’s own hitman film, Ghost Dog, but it’s just silly here.
There’s a series of fade-outs including the 1) tossing of the cell-phone, of communication with Jack’s boss, 2) drinking brandy with the priest, establishing a thin friendship and 3) the first meeting of the prostitute Clara in the brothel, establishing the grounds for another thin relationship. In that last scene, Corbijn’s commentary on the DVD goes something to the effect of “this is a very European film, so of course, we are going to see a fully nude prostitute.”
There’s just not much going on in The American besides an amateur director who has a wonderful photographer’s eye. Corbijn ranks his “best” character scenes in the film to include a graphic sex scene that’s supposed to establish Jack’s history, his lifting up of Clara beyond that of her station and the possibility of love between them (and something about his anger issues too).
But what we end up getting is a rather exploitive scene that distractingly stands alone because there’s not much else in the film to develop their characters in the relationship: “come away with you?” “yes.” “”together?” “together.” “forever?” “forever.”
The best part of the film comes near the end when, while driving, Clooney lets all the stops loose and we see Jack getting angry, pounding the steering wheel and looking desperately ahead as if that would get him somewhere quicker. And it doesn’t. Not unless you believe the nonsense Corbijn would have you take for granted, that of Jack being savior and sinner destined to rise in a place previously nick-named Paradise.