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Circumstance, Psychology Build Tension in The American

  • Jeffrey Huston Contributing Writer
  • 2010 1 Sep
Circumstance, Psychology Build Tension in <i>The American</i>

DVD Release Date:  December 28, 2010
Theatrical Release Date:  September 1, 2010
Rating:  R (for brief strong language, strong sexual content, nudity, and violence)
Genre:  Drama
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. 

Sitting at a café and walking the daytime street carry their own dangers.  Even when casual, Jack never lets his guard down.   Well … until he does, and with a woman of course.  She is a prostitute, and their initial sexual encounters are inherently guarded.  Then emotional attraction grows; she's intrigued by his mystery, he's drawn to her tenderness, and we're worried even before he is.  Is she really a femme fatale luring him in, or as genuinely sincere as she seems to be?  Regardless, it's ill-fated; either he's too tempted to keep his necessary edge, or too jaded to ever love.

From sex to murder (both graphically portrayed, the sex in particular), Jack is guilty of many sins.  But he is a lost soul, not a hardened one.  A local priest senses this, even sees it, which leads to intriguing—and even blunt—discussions about the cost of those sins, as well as the need for redemption.  But despite the empathetic counsel of the priest (who looks strikingly like the aforementioned Hitchcock), Jack can't perceive a God that would have any interest in him.  He likely sees himself as simply too far gone.

George Clooney gives his most internalized, lived-in performance. Gone are the facial ticks and twitches so common to even his best acting turns. Completely immersed into this man's psyche, Clooney carries the weight of his past so heavily that we don't need to know the details to understand him.  As an actor, Clooney just keeps getting better and better.

Corbijn's directorial eye is acute, both as a stylist and storyteller.  In one respect, he approaches the material as "Week in the Life" of this man, patiently revealing him through the details of what he does and how he responds to the world around him, and we are a fly on the wall observing. 

In contrast to the title, Corbijn's visual aesthetic is positively European: bleak yet beautiful, and quiet—which makes sudden jolts of violence all the more real.  His few chase scenes also pop, whether they be on foot through back allies or have Jack racing on a Vespa.  But it's in the slow, still moments that Corbijn milks the suspense for all its worth; Jack seated alone in an empty, open café like a sitting duck had me anxiously shuffling in my seat.

As in Michael Clayton, The American ends with Clooney on a car ride, left to his thoughts.  But instead of reflecting on a victory, here he must contemplate consequences.  The conclusion he reaches isn't just sad; it's tragic.


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:  A couple drinks wine with dinner.
  • Language/Profanity:  Virtually none.  One "f" word.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Definitely a strong "R" due to sexual content.  Rear female nudity.  Two occasions of full-frontal female nudity.  Two different scenes of topless women.  An extended sex scene; while only shot from the waist up, the sequence is fairly lengthy, erotic, suggests oral sex as woman is aroused, and even a bit rough.
  • Violence/Other:  Several occasions of violence throughout, mostly gunplay/killings.  Point-blank murder/killings; some are very sudden, and the surprise adds to the brutality.  One man snaps the neck of another to kill him.  A woman is shot in the eye; her face is very bloody and damaged while still alive.


Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla.  He is also cohost of "Steelehouse Podcast," along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture. 

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