Sunday, December 26, 2010

On DVD: "The American"

Anton Corbijn’s The American begins with a short burst of austere action—regarded flatly, from a distance. Corbijn drains the scene of its sensationalism; there is no scare music, no tight close-ups. It is an unfortunate thing that happens, and that we move on from. There will be a good long while before there is more action. There is some at the end, also. But The American is not about action, and audiences looking for it will be disappointed, perhaps angered. It is a deliberate, methodical picture. Some have called it “slow.” They’re right in literal definition, if not in connotation. There’s a whole lot happening in it while nothing is happening.

In that opening sequence, Jack (George Clooney) is enjoying a snowy getaway in Sweden. He is with an attractive woman; they seem very much in love. But as they’re out walking through the freshly-fallen snow, she notices another set of tracks. The man who made those tracks is, within seconds, shooting at them. Jack draws a gun. “Why do you have a gun?” the woman asks. Jack finds the would-be assassin, and kills him. He then sends the woman to call the police, and when her back is turned, he kills her, coldly and efficiently. He goes to Rome and calls Pavel (Johan Leysen) for help. Pavel is, to say the least, unsympathetic. “Don’t make any friends, Jack,” he says. “You used to know that.”

The film that unwinds from there is a quiet, meditative character study; as Jack arrives in one Italian village, then moves to another, making acquaintances and lining up a job customizing a long-range rifle, Corbijn demands our patience. He’s trying out a deliberate, distinctively European tone, tenor, and (especially) pace. The American has the feel of a ‘60s French crime pic—a Melville effort, perhaps?—or a ‘70s Italian film; mid-period Leone, maybe, or Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, particularly in its Morricone-style score, which is cleverly replaced by the real thing at one point.

Of course, films like those are the precise antithesis of a modern, star-driven Hollywood action movie, which is part of the reason The American should be celebrated. This is not to imply that all of Corbijn’s throwback moves work—there is a fine line between the familiar and the cliché, and certainly we could have found a less predictable way for Jack to fall in love than to find that old standby, the hooker with the heart of gold. His relationship with a local priest is intriguing; their spiritual debates less so. And so on.

Corbijn is a photographer and music video director whose debut film, the Ian Curtis biopic Control, had a great many admirers (though I was not one of them). The title of that film seems the rule of this one; there must be a tremendous temptation, for any filmmaker, to amp up the melodrama when dealing with a story of assassins and double-crosses and the like. But Corbijn keeps the narrative tightly reined, so that the climactic events, when they arrive, are devastating. He also lucks out in hitching himself to Clooney, who does some of his best work to date here. There’s a sadness in his weathered face throughout the film, tracing back to the particular (and chilling) way that his eyes go dead when he pulls the trigger on that poor woman in the opening sequence. The entire performance is borne out of that moment. This is an actor of subtlety and skill, who never has to reach for effect, and The American is the ideal showcase for how much he can do by doing very little.

The American demands a degree of diligence that American filmgoers are often loathe to give. It is not an easy film. It is not an obvious one. But for viewers with the fortitude for it, who don’t mind reconfiguring their expectations and rhythms a bit for a couple of hours, it is a moody, sensuous chamber piece, with a gratifying and touching payoff.

"The American" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, December 28. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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