‘The American’ is a soul crushingly depressing movie and I loved it.
It stars George Clooney and is directed by the highly influential photographer Anton Corbijn. It is only his second film since 2007‘s ‘Control’.
I was looking forward to ‘The American’ purely because Corbijn directed it. I had studied and loved his work in art school and ‘Control’ was one of my favorite films from 2007. If you haven’t seen that work then I urge you to. It detailed the life of Ian Banks; the lead singer of Joy Division and investigates the surroundings of and leading up to his suicide – it is incredibly powerful and shot in Corbijn’s signature and stunning black and white photography.
That film was three years ago now and things have changed.
There have been rumors that he is soon retiring from film-making after one more film, and based on the deep, deep cynicism displayed in ‘The American’ you can sort of understand why he would, but more on that in a bit.
Before ‘Control’ the Dutch-born Corbijn has directed short films and over 75 music videos, he has also designed the album covers for many of those artists. His visuals are stunning and his movies are deep.
Whilst Corbijn is renowned for his black and white photography; ‘The American’ is shot in color….well it is so depressing and cynical it might as well have been black and white.
Based on the much better titled novel: ‘A Very Private Gentleman’ by Martin Booth; ‘The American’ opens on an hitman Jack (Clooney). After a job goes awry Jack hides out in a small medieval village in Italy. Whilst there he takes on a Job constructing a rifle for a mysterious woman, falls in love with a prostitute and befriends a priest.
Besides the last half an hour Corbijn doesn’t really do anything more then this. The film basically spends the majority of its running time meditating on life and death. Jack has had a life of killing and is now here in Italy looking for something or someone to help him change.
The film asks us and thinks about the questions: Can you really escape your past? Is regret all that is left for us in our old age? And if all of us will ultimately die, then what is the point of anything?
Yes the movie ponders them, and skirts answering. Because of this the movie is a slow burn; and whilst it does have some suspense and a couple of very well executed action sequences; I wouldn’t call it an action picture. It is a very quiet almost spiritual meditation on life.
In the case of Jack; he has killed people for a living and now in his old age he wishes to change himself from a killer into someone human, but because of his past he just cannot no matter what he does. Thinking that someone might kill him for the crimes he has committed he is crippled by extreme paranoia; the only time he is truly comfortable is when he has a gun in his hands. It’s a real life character that has relatable problems, man!
I could bore you to death with minutia of his character but I would rather talk about a sequence in the film which I found particularly interesting: Jack acquires all the parts to build a silencer for a rifle; and of course; something as simple as assembling a silencer takes great effort, practice, and skill – and to do it at the rate which Jack does: experience. As human beings we can spend our lives dedicated to something: in this case killing. Jack is no longer after that life anymore; he is now looking for nothing but peace, i.e He is looking for ‘the silence’. Here in this scene he builds the silencer; and it works.
But in the end it still kills people.
This is what ‘The American’ was to me: We can build and build and build to create peace within ourselves; but in the end we all will kill each-other, and we all will die.
Whilst the movie is depressing; the way in which it brings across the points is fascinating and excellent. This is a story about the hopelessness of old age – it’s about the eventual disintegration and the disconnection with humanity we all will go through. It’s here in every scene. Scenes with the priest character showcase that even the man of faith doubts the ability to change: “In the end it is I who confesses to you” he says to Jack. “Perhaps I can pray for you?” he asks Jack. All that Jack can respond back is “Perhaps”.
That’s a word that has significance to all of us I think. Could I have made better choices in my life? Perhaps. Could I have stopped myself from this heartache? Perhaps. Is there a God? Is there a point? Perhaps. Perhaps. There are no truths in life. No matter what road we all go down: we all end up dead. As Jack says to Clara; his prostitute/lover: “We can’t stay forever”…
If this isn’t enough there is also this running motif of a picnic. You know; that perfect little picturesque moment? Where you and a partner sit on a blanket with a basket filled with cheese, sandwiches and some wine. You sit in a perfect little secluded spot.
In ‘The American’ there are multiple picnics. And they all occur at a place they nickname: “paradise”. The funny thing about a picnic is that it’s a moment that can never last, after you pack up the blanket all that is left is dirt.
A picnic is like your life: Before you were around all there was was dirt. Your life is the moment, your life is the ‘paradise’, and then when you pack up and die, all there is is dirt again. Once you are dead, its like you were never born. There is another motif of a butterfly: there is a real butterfly, a CGI butterfly, Clooney has a tattoo of a butterfly, one of his fake names is Mr. Butterfly – he reads a book about butterflies. It was the only thing about the movie I didn’t like; because it was a painfully obvious metaphor that was overkilled. It features prominently in the end, and if it wasn’t overused prior it would have worked gangbusters. Oh well.
Everything else besides that stupid Butterfly is incredibly affecting and underplayed. ‘The American’ is an extremely subtle film and I don’t think there are right or wrong interpretations of the movie; but I am pretty confident in saying that it is not just a string of random and beautifully shot events happening together in sequence. There is definitely a deeper meaning and a rich subtext.
In certain moments particularly the finale – the points I made seemed explicit.
‘The American’ is the type of film that devotes and entire subplot to a female hitman; almost solely for the reason of showing us what Jack’s life was like before he decided to change it.
The relationship with the priest and the prostitute similarly exist to add layers to this mysterious, paranoid and despondent hitman. The movie is a character study- that just so happens to include deep meditations on the pointlessness of life.
I said earlier that there is a rumor of Corbijn retiring soon. Let me explain why I think the cynicism displayed in the movie has something to do with that: I think the movie almost becomes a parallel to art, in the sense that the Artist is a type of Hitman… Look, I might seem like I am reading into the movie a little bit too much; but there was one aspect of the movie that made my brain spiral:
As a cover in Italy Clooney’s character Jack pretends to be a photographer. Corbijn himself is primarily a photographer. I don’t think its coincidence – It is an aspect that opens up the movie to a much wider interpretation: the character is depressed because the choices he has made in his life will forever affect the way he lives; and there is nothing he could do to change the fact that he made those choices.
Regret is inevitable. Death is inevitable.
If Corbijn is seriously depressed, and has these negative views of humanity; I don’t think he would be entirely un-sympathetic to life. The point of ‘The American’ is not fully negative. I feel I’m spiraling out a bit myself here, but bear with me: There are things we love in life like food, conversation, sex, machinery, art etc. These are forever good things. No matter what we do in our past; we can still(mostly) enjoy them.
The movie is not fully depressing because the character of Jack realizes his mistakes and is trying to fix them – he still enjoys aspects of life, but can’t solve the bigger picture- but on the other hand the movie is still deeply cynical because nothing can change the fact that he made mistakes in his past.
I guess the most profound point made in ‘The American’ is that any decision you make in your life (even one that is out of your control) can ultimately seriously damage you: it can damage you to the point where you can never fix it. This idea is so deeply profound because we could make the mistake tomorrow without knowing it.
And on top of that, when we die, that could be it. And if it’s not, then hell is our destination, because we made mistakes it is a place we are destined to go. I think no matter which way you look at ‘The American’ you will always arrive at the question: does anything matter at all if you will eventually die?
It’s a theme driven movie that is for sure, and if you are looking for a movie that has a hitman on his last mission and is full of sex and violence; then you can find a hundred other movies exactly like that. If that’s what you hope ‘The American’ is going to be, then it will be a very – very – very slow moving movie that has long stretches without dialogue and absolutely no action. It is more a movie that for it to work; you need to engage and think deeply about what is going on.
It is not impenetrable. The cast help out a lot. Clooney particularly; he carries the movie and is amazing in the role. It is not career high, but it is outstanding. He is always good, but this is a very challenging role for him. He plays someone who is essentially a horrible human being trying to make good. The character has many suppressed emotions that Clooney handles brilliantly. The aspect of the character which he absolutely nailed was the paranoia and the uncertainty…It’s a great performance. He also produced the movie, so he was obviously engaged with the material on a personal level.
The other actors are not well known in english speaking countries; but they are fantastic non-the-less. Violante Placido plays Clara; Jacks prostitute/ love interest. She has stared in many European films, and only recently is trying to break out internationally. She has very feminine and sensual characteristics- I thought she was fantastic and the chemistry she shares with Clooney is wonderful. The film also features Thekla Reuten (In Bruges) she plays the female hitman, and Paolo Bonacelli (Night On Earth, Mission Impossible III) as the priest.
The cast sort of give you a window into the films structure; it’s very much that of a western flick. There is a loner with a murky past who comes into a small quiet town and slowly but surely interacts and builds relationships with the townsfolk. Before long his past catches up with him and it all ends pretty violently. like any great western; the structure and fish out of water setting is used to make some sort of commentary on society; In this case Corbijn just hammers us all into the ground like the pointless ants we are.
A film-maker like him can only get away with such cynicism and pessimism when it comes from a sincere place. In the case of ‘The American’ I believe that directly comes from Corbijn himself and his own belief in himself as an artist.
Insecurity and depression hit every creative type. So many creative types get afflicted by it because for so long all you do is create art; and creating art by its nature is creating something artificial. After many years you look back and you realize all you have done is craft; you ask yourself If you have connected with anyone at all? “I’ve wasted all that time and I’ll never get it back. Now I’m going to die”. Pretty depressing sh*t.
With all the darkness in the movie. It is so beautifully shot. Corbijn displayed it in ‘Control’ ,he displayed it in his photographs, and of course in his videos – he has an eye unlike any other. The film is filled with such beautiful compositions and lighting and its use of color and tone is amazing. It all so impressive, but it is still subtle.
It did annoy the hell out of me that the first 25 minutes of the movie was projected out of focus, but even this couldn’t stop me from being impressed. It is not a flashy style of film-making at all – if you weren’t looking out for the camera angles I doubt you would notice it. The camera barely even moves – its just classical, and because of that every frame could be hung on a wall.
Corbijn’s innate sense of photography was part of the reason I was worried about this film. I loved ‘Control’ but because that movie centered around Joy Division; it didn’t seem like such a jump from his music video stuff. Now all of a sudden he is doing the most tired story-device of the last ten years: ‘The final mission’ and it is a ‘Hitman’ movie… It almost looked like it was going to be a cliched movie that is nothing more exercise in selling out. It was always going to be beautiful looking, but it is the other stuff that I truly care about…
Ultimately It turned out having more in common with ‘Control’ then it did with ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’. Actually, if the marketing never told you he was a hitman, it may be likely that you would never know it until about an hour and fifteen into the movie. Oh well, the movie rises above and becomes about so much more. I really hope that Corbijn makes more movies than just one more, but I will understand why if he doesn’t.
‘The American’ is deeply depressing and cynical for sure. It’s not exactly a romp or an adventure, but it is poignant and fascinating. It is one of the best movies of 2010.
9 out of 10.