Movie Review: The American
The Charlotte Observer
I guess we know the kinds of movies Anton Corbijn likes.
"Control," his first feature as a director, is a slow, grim, atmospheric but virtually plotless look at a blank-faced loner who is obsessed with his work, has no friends except for one woman inexplicably attached to him, and ends up making those around him miserable.
"The American," Corbijn's second feature, is a slow, grim, atmospheric but virtually plotless look at a blank-faced loner who is obsessed with his work, has no friends except for one woman inexplicably attached to him, and ends up making those around him miserable.
That the first film was about a rock musician and the second about an assassin doesn't make much difference. At least Corbijn has moved from black-and-white to color this time.
Rowan Joffe's screenplay loosely adapts Martin Booth's novel "A Very Private Gentleman," replacing the book's bold and logical ending with a gutless one intended to shock us. And so it might, if we cared a whit about the characters.
We begin in mid-air. Jack (George Clooney), supposedly a first-class killer who never lets himself be caught out, strolls across an expanse of Swedish snow in front of a hidden shooter - who misses of course, then stands up, so Jack can plug him. Of course, we never know why the Swedes are after him. (For simplicity's sake, I assume you'll add "We never know why" after each of the following four sentences.)
Jack flees to an Italian village, where he builds a special gun and bullets for a female assassin (Thekla Reuten). A prostitute (Violante Placido) falls in love with Jack without knowing anything about him, including his name. Jack decides to leave the business. Meanwhile, a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) takes special interest in him, saying he knows Jack has sinned, and the priest's illegitimate son gives Jack the equipment he needs for nothing: "My garage is your garage."
Individual scenes have plenty of atmosphere, and the performances are as good as they could be when the actors have nothing to play. (Bonacelli is especially charismatic as the shrewd priest.) The film is also handsome to watch, as what film shot in rural Italy is not?
But there's a difference between ambiguity and lack of detail, and Joffe and Corbijn don't seem to know what it is. Some movies ask viewers to work to understand the characters' motivations or behavior. "The American" provides a few bald, disconnected facts and lets you draw any conclusions about them that you like.
We can do that, of course. But if we do all the work of assembling a narrative, shouldn't Corbijn pay us to attend instead of the other way around?