Circumstance, Psychology Build Tension in The American
- Wednesday, September 01, 2010
DVD Release Date: December 28, 2010
Theatrical Release Date: September 1, 2010
Rating: R (for brief strong language, strong sexual content, nudity, and violence)
Run Time: 105 min.
Director: Anton Corbijn
Cast: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli
It's a rare thing when a movie achieves the psychological depth of a novel (though many try). Movies need not do so to be great, certainly, but when they do the result is absorbing. The American is one such rarity, and is so by not using any literary tricks at all.
That is to say the easiest device employed by filmmakers to achieve a literary air is the Voice Over Narration—yet it's completely absent here. Dialogue itself is sparse, and even then is more reticent than informative. Instead, acting must expose and direction perceive what normally only words can reveal. The collaboration of George Clooney and Anton Corbijn, respectively on both fronts, uses metered emotion and careful visual construction (framing, edits, and so on) to speak volumes.
Oh, and it's a thriller.
A particularly distinguished thriller, too, in that The American is driven by character rather than plot. In a genre almost-by-rule defined by high concepts and plot mechanics, it's daring to slow down, thin the narrative, and really explore a man's nature more intensely than the danger he finds himself in. Not that the latter is absent; on the contrary, a lingering and building threat is the window through which we see, observe, and ultimately understand this man whose deadly skills cannot protect him from his own internal isolation.
Clooney's protagonist is an enigma; we're not even sure of his real name (both Jack and Edward are used). We are drawn to him, but he is not defined. Exposition is avoided, so we can only judge him by his actions. What they reveal lead to more questions. Is he a spy? A mercenary? Villain? Or possibly a hapless innocent forced into dramatic circumstances ala Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest?
Though that classic is the one this film most closely emulates (but more seriously, and bleak), it soon becomes apparent that Jack has come to this place in life—specifically, on the run from Swedish hitmen—due to his own choices. Those choices are never revealed, his profession never stated, but there's enough to posit that he works as a lethal pawn in a chess game of underworld espionage. And now, it seems, a bigger piece is trying to knock him off the board for good.
Jack takes refuge in a small Italian town, completing one last contract while laying low. The job itself is rather routine and not directly harmful: building a specialized rifle and then delivering it with ammo to a mysterious client. The transaction is brokered by Jack's longtime confidant (who also helped him escape the Swedes), so it should be a safe diversion at a dangerous time.
But of course it's not safe—or, at least, not secure. For Jack, the fear is too strong. Polite strangers are instantly suspicious. Passing extras may actually be tailing him. Innocent comments by others are second-guessed. Whether his paranoia is warranted or just all in his head is ultimately moot; at this point, it's the only way he can see the world and the people in it. The obsession of distrust is ever-present, builds, and is palpable.
Director Anton Corbijn (Control, U2 music videos) creates a moody but minimalist atmosphere. The camera is mostly static, music scarcely heard, and shots linger. Thrillers usually depend on opposite tactics—swirling shots, tense music, and fast edits—to set the tone. Corbijn strips those away, instead allowing circumstance and psychology alone to create confusion and build tension.
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