The American

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 December, 2010, 12:00am

Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli
Director: Anton Corbijn
Category: III (English and Italian)

In his previous film, the Ian Curtis biopic Control, Anton Corbijn tackled the story of a young rock singer trying to break out of his physical and psychological confines. This time round, the photographer-turned-filmmaker goes for the reverse perspective - through a story about a middle-aged hitman-cum-gunmaker lying low in a small Italian town. The American provides a portrait of someone trying to 'escape from history' but who ends up seeing the world closing in on him from all sides, with a tragic finale looming ever-closer to his rural hideout.

Based on Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman, The American is as austere as its minimalistic title suggests. Just as the title alludes to the simple moniker locals employ to refer to Jack (George Clooney, right), The American dwells on processes stripped down to their basics - whether it's waiting (on boats and in cafes), watching (in a town square, through a gun's viewfinder), moving (in a car driven on country roads dwarfed by the lavish vistas of the Abruzzo), talking (over the technical details of a weapon to be made) and crafting (of the gun in question).

While maybe moving at too glacial a pace and being too remote in its engagement with the story, Corbijn's images make sense when seen through Jack's eyes, as he contemplates the things he's done and the consequences of those actions, laid out in the shocking opening sequence in which, while enjoying some leisure time in the Swedish hinterlands, he kills not only those who ambush him but also his lover (Irina Bjorklund) - maybe to ensure his identity remains intact, but probably because he suspects her of being involved in the plot on his life.

This incident, like many others, is not spelled out. We never learn why the Swedes are hunting Jack down, what his background is and whether his growing sense of paranoia is valid. Corbjin lays out a menacing terrain for his character: while Jack gets a final commission from fellow assassin Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) and falls for local prostitute Clara (Violante Placido), he finds his local cafe playing the Neapolitan song Tu Vuo Fa l'Americano ('You Pretend to be American') and Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time in the West in his presence. All is not what it seems, and it's his confusion that drives the haunted Jack to breaking point.

Corbijn's design wouldn't have worked without his cast - Clooney gives a nuanced performance which captures perfectly Jack's mix of cynicism, desire for human connection and final plummet towards desperation. Corbijn has made a film that is different from, but equally as mesmerising as, his previous one.

The American opens today