Corbijn’s ‘American’ would like your attention

Posted by · 11:25 am · August 31st, 2010

Director Anton Corbijn’s sophomore feature is not an Oscar film.  Unfortunately, such a classification immediately conjures skepticism, cynicism and wariness of a project slated for late summer/early fall release.  But the fact is, just because a studio knows a film won’t appeal to the sensibilities of awards season doesn’t mean it’s a turkey: it’s not a bad thing to not be an Oscar film.

What “The American” is, however, is a measured, calculated, at times quite fascinating exercise in observing human behavior.  It’s the ultimate in “show, don’t tell,” a film with a central brooding, finely tuned performance from George Clooney that isn’t what you’d expect from the actor.

It’s a quiet film, one that forces you to just simply watch and listen.  Corbijn and Clooney are putting on a very different kind of show for the viewer, one that doesn’t dazzle with spectacle and big budget intrigue.  They strip the mechanics of performance and visual storytelling down to an essence that the best filmmakers will surely appreciate, and most audiences will surely reject.

Clooney stars as Jack (or Edward, depending on who he’s talking to), a weapons expert tapped to build a rapid fire silenced weapon.  For what, we don’t really know.  Where Jack/Edward comes from, what he does, we don’t know explicitly.  But from his actions and behavior, we know him very well.

The film opens with him sitting on the ground nursing a Scotch with a million-mile-stare, a beautiful naked woman on the bed behind him.  Circumstances bring him to Italy, where he frequents a local brothel, but chooses to sleep with only one of its employees.  He’s lost something, clearly, something he wants to get back.  A sense of security, maybe, the security of love and emotional comfort.  Or maybe he’s never had it and always coveted it.  But the paranoia that invades his day-to-day life keeps that kind of comfort at arm’s reach.  Indeed, the final moments of the film reveal, quite beautifully, this tragedy of unattainable solace with a touching visual clarity.

The most engaging moments are the procedural ones, as Jack/Edward constructs his weapon with basic materials and an unbreakable focus.  I feel confident that if “The American” were released 30 years ago (which it certainly feels from another time, in any case), it would be a film Michael Mann would cite as an influence, not for stylistic reasons, but because it pays close attention to a man and his work, the very backbone of every Mann film.

Though the film unfolds within a generally acceptable time frame, the long breaths Corbijn takes make the running time feel a bit inflated.  So perhaps some trimming would have made it feel like a tighter experience, but nevertheless, it is a wonderful exercise and, if not up to par with the director’s debut feature, “Control,” certainly a noble enterprise to embark upon with the freedom he had in its wake.

→ 13 Comments Tags: , , | Filed in: Daily · Reviews

13 responses so far

  • 1 8-31-2010 at 11:29 am

    Kevin K. said...

    Awesome. I could see some tech nods like cinematography later down the road, but I’m actually thrilled to hear that it’s an art-house film, not oscar bait nor mainstream thriller. I can’t wait to see it tomorrow night. This is the kind of film I’ve been waiting for all year.

  • 2 8-31-2010 at 11:34 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Probably not happening for cinematography. In fact, I was somewhat disappointed with Rhue’s work this time out. It’ll hopefully make decent coin to justify the investment during opening weekend then it will quietly fade away as the onslaught of awards season entries hits. I doubt many critics will try to revive it by year’s end, either. It’s a solid effort from a respectable artist and that’s likely where the road ends.

  • 3 8-31-2010 at 11:41 am

    Kevin K. said...

    I think it will have it’s following, probably will end up on a few top ten lists at the end of the year. But no, it’s not destined for much awards attention or commercial success. Opening weekend should be good, since Focus put it out on a Wednesday over Labor Day weekend. Clooney gets butts in seats, mostly in the educated 21-40-ish ranges. In any case, I’m just glad the film turned out the way I envisioned it playing. Like I said before, from what you’ve described it as, it sounds right up my alley.

  • 4 8-31-2010 at 11:56 am

    James D. said...

    “it’s not a bad thing to not be an Oscar film”

    It is usually a good thing.

  • 5 8-31-2010 at 11:59 am

    Tye-Grr said...

    Even if this film is looked at as nothing more than a stepping stone leading to bigger things for Corbijn down the road, that won’t be a bad thing. I still plan on seeing it.

  • 6 8-31-2010 at 12:05 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    Problem: There’s an “action” clip online showing Clooney in a snowy forest and he shoots a guy and it’s piss-poor direction. The bad-guy initially fires from an elevated position and somehow misses Clooney. So what was the bad-guy firing at in the first place? Can one just miss? Or does context prove that the bad-guy meant to miss? The kill-shot is supposed to be the last shot, right? Look at Lee Harvey Oswald.

    Which brings me to this: The best actions scene usually follow Tuco’s rule: When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk.

    And the reason why many don’t follow Tuco’s rule or advice is that it puts the protagonist often in box. But I think the Bourne films, The Wire, Coen Bros, and others have proved that with clever direction and writing, the protagonist can escape the “box” in a realistic way and smart way.

  • 7 8-31-2010 at 12:08 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Clooney and the girl suddenly run behind a rock in that scene because Clooney thinks something’s fishy. The dude missed because of that sudden movement. I don’t think it’s THAT out of the ordinary. And I’m not following, re: “Tuco’s rule.” It doesn’t really compute here.

  • 8 8-31-2010 at 12:09 pm

    Marc R. said...

    Interesting thoughts Kris, sounds like the type of film many will feel didn’t get enough recognition during awards season. Also, is Clooney’s performance the only one worth noting?

  • 9 8-31-2010 at 12:57 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    Screenwriters and filmmakers should keep Tuco’s advice in mind when they’re making a film that involves guns and shooting, killing, etc. That if a character utters just one sentence before he or she fires at another the scene renders into crap (usually). Kind of like how David Mamet likes to say that if two characters in a scene talk about a third the scene is shit.

    The American clip shows an incompetent assassin (he leaves tracks in the snow thus triggering Clooney’s alarm) and then shoots at… a boulder thereby giving his position away — and Clooney pops out and shoots the dumbass. It can’t be that easy. Challenge yourself Anton! I think Tuco’s advice computes here in that the the leaving of footprints and inexcusable shots (Clooney clearly has cover, so what shoot?) is not unlike that character talking up a storm before Tuco shoots him from the bathtub. Don’t talk and don’t leave hints of your existence, just shoot. Why not have the assassin blow a hole through Clooney’s shoulder? That would trigger his alarm. Clooney could use his skills, while dealing with a horrible wound, to maneuver his way up the hill and find a way to get the drop on the sniper.

    I’m not sure why I’m talking so much about a 34 second clip. I still haven’t seen the film so…

  • 10 8-31-2010 at 1:17 pm

    Danny King said...

    Midnight show here I come.

  • 11 8-31-2010 at 7:07 pm

    MovieMan said...

    I really quite liked this film. I loved the slow-paced and reflective narrative trajectory, the sleek visual style, Clooney’s performance. I ultimately liked “In Bruges” a bit better (it made my top ten of 2008), but this is a good sibling film to that. It is a very big success and a more-than-worthy start for the unofficial “Oscar season.”

  • 12 9-01-2010 at 9:51 am

    Fitz said...

    I’ll be seeing this this weekend. I really wish my significant other didn’t have to work all weekend though. Maybe I’ll wait to Labor Day.

  • 13 9-03-2010 at 12:03 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I disagree with everything Tapley says here. Terrible movie.