The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010)

January 3, 2012


Originally written for and published in a December 2010 issue of the Glasgow University Guardian

The American is the sophomore feature film effort from Anton Corbijn, world-renowned rock photographer and director of Control and various landmark music videos. A familiar tale of a lonely hitman on the run making both platonic and romantic connections, its minimalist narrative and aesthetic harkens directly to a particular brand of European thriller of the 1960s and 1970s; with as little exposition as possible, there’s a slow build up of tension to an intense climax, and the whole product is free of quick edits, frenetic camerawork, and even much dialogue. In George Clooney, Corbijn has a cool, brooding leading man in the vein of Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, a pinnacle example of this genre-of-sorts. Usually excelling in dialogue-heavy roles, Clooney gets to play a more subdued, restrained character, and proves just as adept at getting a feel for his character across through what is primarily a physical performance.

Otherwise a fairly standard biopic of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Control’s strengths lay in its mood and aesthetic, and this is similarly where The American’s lie. As with much of Corbijn’s output, the striking, gorgeous photography has an almost glacial quality to it, while the exclusion of practically all narrative exposition allows the pictures to speak for themselves; long, steady scenes of silent, meticulous preparation of weaponry prove more captivating than the entirety of many of the film’s thriller contemporaries. To allude to a Depeche Mode song Corbijn once directed a music video for, it is the film’s silence that is enjoyable. Unfortunately, it is when the little dialogue does come into play that the film suffers.


“I don’t think God’s very interested in me, Father.”
“You cannot doubt the existence of hell, you live in it.”
“Final payment; buy yourself a retirement clock.”
Any attempts at thematic subtlety via imagery in the scenes of relative silence are ruined by so much of the little dialogue being devoted to explicitly, and clumsily, stating the themes. As a result of this, the brooding aesthetic of the entire film, which really does suit the silent scenes so well, ends up seeming ridiculous when accompanying the sermon-like exchanges. The conversations would perhaps seem less purposefully weighty and worthy when found in the aesthetic of, say, one of the Bourne films. In a film with so little originality to begin with, combining superficially deep dialogue with an ultra serious tone only serves to expose the lack of innovation rather than provide a distraction from it.

Many of the films The American aspires to be like managed to keep up the process of letting the images speak for themselves for the entirety of their running time, and so each film’s unique directorial approaches and performances distracted from any lack of originality that may normally bother some viewers. Corbijn’s film does have a few aspects worthy of recommendation, but, to quote that song in a cheesy manner again, its words are meaningless and forgettable.


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