Monday, September 13, 2010
A beautifully shot mood piece, The American is a tasty bowlful of high-class eye candy. I wasn’t surprised to read that director Anton Corbijn (whose first feature, the rock biopic Control, was a very good film of a very different sort) got into movies through photography: This is clearly the work of someone who thinks a lot about where to put the camera and why.
It opens in a cabin by a frozen Swedish lake in winter, where Jack/Edward (George Clooney) is holed up with a lover. We see them only for a couple of minutes and they barely exchange a word, but a wide shot of the two in profile as they take a walk establishes their intimacy. Having seen them almost merge into a single figure, their strides perfectly matched, we feel the weight of Jack/Edward’s loss when she goes down a moment later, the victim of an ambush intended for him.
That kind of thing happens to Jack/Edward wherever he goes, though it takes him a while to figure out who’s trying to kill him and why. It took me almost as long, but I accepted it as easily as he does, since I’ve seen this story so many times before. Like one of Sergio Leone’s taciturn heroes, Clooney’s man with many names lives and dies by the gun, and that means never knowing where the next bullet may come from.
I thought of Leone because most of the movie takes place in a lovely medieval town in Italy, where Jack/Edward is sent by Pavel, the man who is paying him to build a high-powered and untraceable rifle for some high-level assassination. If that hadn’t been enough, I would have been noodged into it when Leone was reverently name-checked in a bar where Once Upon a Time in the West was playing. But Leone is hardly the only director to have made movies about the loneliness of the long-distance gunslinger, a genre that goes back at least to 1953’s Shane.
The American strips that genre down to its skivvies and makes it look hot. As cinematography Martin Ruhe’s camera snakes through the gorgeous scenery, it often switches to aerial shots, establishing the high-walled streets of the town and the mountainous, switchback-ridden roads leading up to it as an elegant trap in which Jack/Edward is simultaneously exposed and hemmed in. The soundtrack is nicely done too, short on music and long on crisp sound effects like the clatter of running feet on cobblestones or the backfire of a scooter going off like a shot and making Jack/Edward jump.
The camera never leaves our antihero as he almost wordlessly goes about his business, turning the tables on yet another would-be killer, getting together with the town’s gently intrusive priest, or falling for Clara (Violante Placido), a sweet-faced hooker. We also watch as he fixes machines, assembles the gun and ammo, sits moodily in cafes, and does push-ups and pull-ups, his body moving in and out of the frame as steadily as a piston in one of his machines. The streets he travels and the bars and cafes he frequents are generally eerily empty, helping to establish him as the ultimate lonely planet guide.
Not that there aren’t plenty of women in his life. Besides Clara, there are the shooters Pavel sends to test-drive and pick up the gun, both of whom look like they stopped off enroute to a runway in Milan.
In addition to generous helpings of shapely naked bodies and beautiful scenery, there are some great faces to look at. The camera loves Johan Leysen, whose cobalt blue eyes and glacially crevassed face make Pavel look suitably icy. Clooney’s own dark-eyed mug has grown more interesting with age, and he makes good use of his creases and gray hair, looking almost haggard at first as he stills his features into a wary mask and dulls the sparkle in his eyes. Then Jack/Edward emerges from his emotional deep freeze and Clooney’s face thaws out, winding up wracked with grief and frustration in his final closeup.
There’s a fine line between well done genre and cliché, and The American crosses it once or twice, with the heavyhanded references to the butterflies Jack/Edward identifies with (one he admires is part of an endangered species, noodge noodge) and the luminous Clara, a whore with a heart of gold and a nimbus of angelic backlighting. But for the most part, this intelligently constructed movie feels as sleek and surefooted as its hero.