First published on Snipe for London Film Festival 2010 //
Taking his cues equally from both classic European literature and Continental cinema, Anton Corbijn delivers his latest, The American, a film certain to divide audiences down the middle.
Our antihero Jack/Edward/Mr. Butterfly (George Clooney) fills almost every frame of film and it begins no differently. We’re introduced to him cold, with no background information apart from the two tattoos he sports on his arm (a military insignia reading: Ex Gladio Equitas) and his back (a butterfly), as he sits post-coitus with his swooning Swedish blonde. They decide to go for a walk. We know it will not end well.
From this point on much of what develops in The American is predictable, to the point where most of the audience is picking out what is going to happen and how, right up to any twists and turns Rowan Joffe’s adapted script tries to throw at them. It feels as if the familiar story is actually a distraction from the feeling Corbijn tries to create. But to dismiss the film at this point seems to indeed miss it completely.
Upon further retrospection, it seems this is Corbijn’s intention. He seems to want to send the film along this direct line, getting across The American’s inescapable conclusion before it happens, to let us know first that it will happen. It may be argued that there is a slightly superficial undercurrent beneath the impeccable cinematography, photography that you would come to expect from the team that shot 2007’s Control. It may also be argued The American is low on feeling or devoid of emotion. And this is where existentially flavoured literature from the likes of Camus, Frisch and Moravia mixes itself in.
Jack (we’ll call him Jack) is the fastidious assassin, as well as a custom weapons fabricator. He informs his contact Pavel (Leysen) that his next job will be his last; his violent past is beginning to strangle his future, and increasingly haunts his waking hours as he stalks around Europe. As he leaves a rendezvous with his untrustworthy handler, during which we get a Limits of Control-esque feel, we watch Jack disappear into hiding in the Italian countryside amongst the Abruzzo mountains. But unlike Jarmusch’s film, abortively rich in its attempt at many different ideas, The American is genuinely rich in just its one.
Clooney comes to personify an update of the literary icon Meursault, the antihero of Albert Camus’ The Outsider (L’Etranger). Jack is given one last job. He begins to take care of it. As an outsider, when he arrives in the village he decides to settle in, he is harangued by the local priest, Benedetto (Bonacelli), setting up a number of scenes pitting man against religion. But Jack sticks to his guns (sorry) in face of challenges from the platitudinous preacher. He is unwavering in his philosophy, obsessed with the gutter truth of his existence, and he accepts his fate, up until the final moment even uncovering Benedetto’s hypocrisy along the way.
There are a number of scenes where Bonacelli’s preacher seems to spout lines a little too laboured, feeling too overworked in their profundity, saying things like: “You’re American. You think you can escape history. You live for the present.” Often they sit opposite one another in moments that pit their two ideologies against each other. But the conversations are nonetheless packed with layers of meaning, as are all the actions, to the point where each event and development of the plot compound all the ramifications previous to that point, making it a film dripping with allusions and double meanings as its impact quietly builds.
He begins to build a gun for a client, the tight-lipped Mathilde (Reuten). We begin to understand the real purpose of the gun that he builds, probably at the same point as Jack does, and we make it with him, watching him carve and shape the mechanisms for the weapon that he knows will at some point have him in its sights. Perhaps his whole life, or at least his whole career, he has slowly been manufacturing the gun that will kill him. His gun, like his actions, fits a predetermined purpose and it is efficient filmmaking that creates it, and an efficient film in its delivery of ideas.
Throughout the film several characters refer to our man Jack as Mr Butterfly, likening him to a rare, endangered species (a metaphor that needs no explanation). Layers of symbolism are piled on for repeated viewings. And though you know everything coming the first time round, perhaps like Antonioni’s The Passenger, you realise the slow and deliberate pacing is intentional, that there is no escape from the isolation and the alienation; there is no way out of quiet, inevitable death.
Also published on: Spike Magazine