[Our thanks to Shelagh Rowan-Legg for the following review.]
The second feature film from famed music photographer Anton Cobijn, The American follows Jack (played by George Clooney), an assassin whose attempts to find some semblance of happiness are usually thwarted by attempts on his life. He escapes to Italy, only to find one last job (assembling a weapon for another assassin to use) will not let him rest. His singularity as an American in a small community, and his seeming attempts at isolation inevitably attract other solitary people: namely, the local priest and one of the local prostitutes. Even as Jack attempts to keep them away, he cannot help but find solace in their friendships. This is dangerous both to him and them. As his enemies track him down, Jack finds himself almost constantly in a kill-or-be-killed scenario.
It is not by accident that Jack's only friends in Italy are a priest and a prostitute. Those professions and his have a lot in common: they all require a great deal of lying, often harm both to oneself and someone else, and those who enter them often find themselves as outcasts (though certainly the assassin is at the extreme of this.) The priest has his dark past; the prostitute her dark present. As an assassin, Jack can never really let his guard down; he must carry his burden of death with him at all times. This is not guilt, as he does not necessarily regret his lifestyle, but he knows that at any moment he could be killed. The priest is revered and feared; the prostitute loved and reviled; and the assassin hated and feared (but perhaps on some level accepted as a necessary evil.) It is only in the company of similar creatures that each can let their guard down.
As a still photographer, Corbijn uses movement economically. The film is frequented with shots of the landscape, which act both as moments of contemplation and as settings for the action. But he is also asking the viewer to understand how the landscape looks to one such as Jack. Enjoyment is not possible. A tourist would look at the quaint Italian village, with its twisted roads, short alleys, and dark staircases as medieval and mysterious. For Jack, each is an opportunity and a hiding place for those who would kill him. For a film about assassination, this is a meditative film. Most of the scenes are very static. Just as an assassin measures every movement for usefulness and necessity, so does Corbijn. When action scenes do occur, their violence is heightened by the lack of action in the rest of the film. There is very little music in the film; again, it seems to be the recreation of the assassin's environment. Music would be a distraction; he must remain open to every sound. The stripped aesthetics lead to a heightened perception in the viewer, such that when loud sounds do occur, they are all the more frightening.
This is the kind of role Clooney seems to enjoy, in dramatic films. The perpetual loner, who made the choice to live such a solitary lifestyle but later comes to regret it. Clooney manages in such roles to look amazing and terrible at the same time. He lets the shadows fill the lines on his face even as he works out. Death and life must be equally kept at bay. In keeping with the minimalist aesthetic, Clooney shows his agitation in the brief twitch of his eye, and holds his fear in the hunch of his shoulders. As the perpetual liar can never believe in truth, Jack the assassin can never believe in trust.
Review by Shelagh Rowan-Legg
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