Control, Corbijn’s acclaimed film about the life and untimely death of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis seemed, to many, to be an ideal project for the photographer-cum-video director because it was his enthusiasm for the band that led – ultimately – to his filmmaking career. The American, then, is that difficult ‘second film’ and Corbijn rightly uses the opportunity to distance himself, at least on the surface, from his debut. Gone is the moody black and white photography (although much of The American is played in saturated duo-tone and the earlier scenes are bleached out by the snow) and the true life scenario and in its place we are offered a low-key study of an assassin on the run. If this sounds a little too Bourne (change identities, cross country shenanigans, double-crossing and intrigue) then be assured that The American is a carefully paced, stylish but underplayed thriller that rewards as much for the silence as for the action. Thematically similar to Control, this is a study of a man isolated from the world at large, the difference being that Jack (George Clooney) is isolated physically rather than mentally from his surroundings, although he is no less blocked in by them.
Jack is on a mission in the snowy landscape of Sweden but his cover has been blown. Attempts by the enemy to snuff him out are met with swift and decisive retribution thanks to his instinct and experience. He must cover all his tracks, no matter what the personal cost and, at the request of his boss, heads to Italy to lay low until the heat has worn off. The boss does, however, have an ulterior motive and the runaway killer is given a new job; to furnish a fellow assassin with a custom-made rifle to carry out a public execution. With only conventional tools to hand and hiding his motives under the guise of a photographer Jack sets to his deadly craft.
Although the scenario is familiar and the character identification a genre staple (the cool, emotionless killer struggling to find a spark of humanity within himself could be straight from a Jean-Pierre Melville or John Woo film) The American manages to pull itself from the brink of cliche with some assuredness. A great deal of the film is given to the meticulous detail of Jack’s trade, albeit through dialogue or action. When he first meets his contact, the assassin Mathilde, for whom he is to construct a muffled high-powered rifle, their conversation is quick fire, technical and professional, all gauges and bullet types, silencer specifications and muzzle velocities. Later, as he is constructing the weapon, we are shown the complexities of creating a silencer or constructing explosive mercury bullets.
Throughout the film Corbijn returns to shots that reinforce the isolation of his protagonist – vast landscapes with tiny figures or cars dwarfed at the bottom of the screen or overhead shots that reduce towns to abstract designs. Indeed the architecture, particularly in the hillside town of Castel del Monte where much of the action takes place, becomes part of Jack’s psyche, closing in on him as he becomes increasingly paranoid.
The film’s pace and its attention to detail in moments of almost silence recall the understated thrillers of the late Claude Chabrol. Rather like Michael Keaton’s directorial debut The Merry Gentleman (2008) this is a quiet film underscored with moments of sudden, swift, violence. The American is an assured, stylish and engaging thriller of a kind much needed in a marketplace crowded with pyrotechnics and unnecessarily convoluted plotting. It is willing to stand back and observe its subject dispassionately and, surprisingly, in doing so it brings us closer to it.