About an hour into The American, George Clooney walks into an empty café where the proprietor is watching the great masterpiece Once Upon A Time In The West. (It’s the scene that introduces Henry Fonda’s bad guy.) If director Anton Corbijn wanted guys like me to use this reference as a cue to compare his work here to that of the almighty Sergio Leone, then I’m happy to oblige.
The American doesn’t quite have the mythic potency of Leone’s work, but it does happily have a couple of key stylistic similarities. For one thing, The American has an interest rare for modern movies in all of the sundry aspects of cinema: sound design, visual style, controlled camera movement and framing, music and score, performance, location, atmosphere, story, character, casting, and so on. For another, this movie is nothing if not deliberate. It takes the time to be worth your time. It’s patient. It’s a movie where we spend an entire scene watching a man put together a gun, for Leone’s sake!
In The American, George Clooney plays a professional loner whose life’s work is confined to the shadows, among dangerous and anonymous people of similar attitudes and focus. When we first see Clooney’s character, he’s in a cottage in Sweden, in the midst of a contemplative moment with a pretty lady. It’s a moment of convincing intimacy, even vulnerability, and it makes what happens next to kick off the movie both entirely predictable and ridiculously surprising.
That’s pretty much the way it is with this movie; it’s not telling you a story you’ve never heard before, but what’s intriguing about it is the method of its telling. The main cast of The American is unusually sparse, and besides Clooney it doesn’t include anyone who you’ve probably even seen before. Still, the movie very quickly makes you subtly anxious over the potential fates of those few people who spend more than a fleeting moment in Clooney’s presence. There’s an elderly priest, a beautiful business contact, and an even more beautiful lady of the night – and at any moment any one of them could fall victim to the sudden outbreaks of violence that punctuate the sanctity of Clooney’s existence. Dialogue is equally sparse; it exists only as a function of character here. People talk only when it’s necessary or interesting, only when it tells you something about these people.
This is the impressive point of comparison of Corbijn’s movie to Leone’s work. Leone knew how to stretch out seemingly-interminable moments of tension with deceptive calm and escalating intensity. In today’s era of hyperactive editing and over-reliance on handheld camerawork, Corbijn goes the other way. A supremely influential rock & roll photographer and music video director who is now on his second feature, Corbijn fills The American with elegant camera compositions, and against all modern trends, actually allows the audience time to look at them. There’s a confidence there, and a willingness to challenge the audience. Ironically, The American is extremely European.
That’s not me telling you it’s boring – remember, Leone was European too, and he’s my favorite director of all time. Like Leone, Corbijn fills The American with fascinating-looking faces, not least among them Clooney’s. The most affable and old-school charming of today’s major movie stars, Clooney has never before been this impenetrable and unknowable on screen. It’s his Eastwood performance. You don’t usually know what his character is thinking, but you damn sure keep looking for clues to figure it out. Also, apropos to Corbijn’s previous work, The American is visually beautiful. The lakes and rivers and countrysides in this movie are thoroughly captivating, and there’s a woman in this movie who’s the most eye-keeping thing I’ve seen in a movie since – OK, well, since Kelly Brook in Piranha 3D, but that’s another story.
The American would be worthwhile strictly on a visual basis, is the point I’m making. Happily, there’s more to it than just good looks. The American is mature, sophisticated, and elegant, a movie that expects your attention. It’s a true movie for adults – if you are one, even if only occasionally (like me), then you will probably find this to be a trip worth taking. It’s a smart piece of work, and hopefully an encouraging herald of the fall movie season to come.