Anton Corbijn’s film, ‘The American’, is certainly not your run-of-the-mill gangster film, the formulaic, Hollywood-style ‘shoot-em-up’ that have become so common as to be humdrum. While it is a gangster film, it is a European-style gangster film, and therein lies the difference…the focus is more on art, cinematography and attractive scenery, and the plot, small though it is, unfolds itself in a painstakingly slow way, allowing us to be drawn in by the atmosphere of composed tension.
The film opens with Jack, the protagonist, played in a wonderfully restrained manner by George Clooney, enjoying a romantic vacation with a beautiful woman in an isolated log cabin in snowy Sweden. We see the naked couple sitting in silence by the fire inside, and then accompany them as they take a walk in the snow. When shots are fired at them from above, Jack does not hesitate to use his own gun, and kills both the man, and the unfortunate, woman. We wonder whether she is a traitor, or just an unsuspecting witness, something that is never disclosed in the film.
The film is mainly set in a beautiful Italian village, set in the mountains, and here Corbijn really takes advantage of the beauty of the location, making unbridled use of the stunning scenes. Not only is the location itself stunning, but so too are all the main characters, giving the film a glamour that is reminiscent of the Bond movies. Yet, one senses the aim of ‘The American’ is to draw one into the psychological mindset of the assassin, and therefore place itself on higher ground than a typical Bond movie. While it does achieve this to a certain degree, we never get too close to the main characters. While we know that Jack has a boss, with whom he communicates through short fragmented phonecalls, we don’t get any more information about who he is. We don’t even understand what exactly Jack is doing in this beautiful Italian village…this lack of context must in some part be a directorial devise, though at times, we yearn for a little bit more explanation, piecing together… Perhaps it is a means to highlight the folly senselessness to such a lifestyle. Jack, capable though he is, is slowly realising that he is lonely, and that his empty life lacks meaning.
He encounters a local priest in the village, who befriends him and tries to encourage him to take God into his heart. This relationship is very subtle and while Jack discovers the priest’s own past sins fairly quickly, we get no further insight into his own spiritual development. Through his liaison with a beautiful prostitute, Clara, we learn a little more. Clara represents for him freedom and life, and awakens Jack’s desire for these. However, it turns out that it’s a bit too late to make amends…Jack is now the ’hunted’, and will never enjoy the life of freedom that he has just discovered he wants.
Overall, I enjoyed ‘The American’, and the atmospheric, slow-moving scenes, and engaged with the characters in the film. However, I found the lack of context difficult to accept at times, and was left with many unanswered questions. The plot isn’t cut-and-dried like many other gangster movies, and only reveals itself in part, and very slowly.