The American

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Shot in gorgeously fuzzy short-focus and understated elegance, Anton Corbijn’s The American (2010) moves in slow even rhythms. Its empty spaces and calm interior moments are strikingly un-American for a film whose protagonist is a hitman on his last job.

Although The American operates in a meditative and contemplative space, its world is saturated with an ever-present dread. An anxious paranoiac tension hums underneath every hazy frame. For Jack/Edward (portrayed with rich subtlety and restraint by George Clooney), even the simplest and most basic human situations like falling in love or meeting a friend for dinner can mean peril or even death. This is where The American succeeds most as a film. Rather than merely creating situations or circumstances that would cause anxiety, it illustrates in detail the feeling of anxiety in all situations. The film makes it like a hot breeze or the scent of grass in a field –  the anxiety is felt rather than plotted. It permeates the scenes, and the senses.

Like Jen-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) (a touchstone of minimalist cinema and The American‘s most closely related ancestor), the film concentrates on in-between moments. Anxiety exists in The American in all the moments that happen between plot points or narrative devices – it is there walking down the stairs of a quaint Italian village, or sipping an Americano at a cafe. It never goes away for Jack/Edward because he is the force creating it. His lifestyle generates it – a life he has chosen, but is unable to escape. He is no longer in harmony with his criminal and violent actions, and is beginning to change into something more capable of empathy and compassion, but his attempted metamorphosis (clunkily symbolized by the repeated image of a butterfly – one of the film’s few weaknesses) cannot be completed.

The Craftsman: George Clooney in 'The American'

In the film, Jack/Edward’s handler tells him he’s lost his edge. He’s right in that Jack/Edward has lost the ability to disconnect from his actions and rationalize his motives, and this may be compromising his performance as a hitman and a weapons craftsman. Regardless, something has changed in him and he wants to retire from his life of violence… just one last job. Like most of The American’s basic themes and even its entire premise, this idea is a worn-out genre cliche that seems an unlikely starting point for such a nuanced and quietly affecting film. Like the Jason Bourne films or Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns (that Anton Corbijn so bluntly references in the film), The American re-envisions its genre. But unlike these films, it strays so far from the aesthetic and moral conventions of the Retiring Assassin/Lone American Anti-hero genre that it exists almost in spite of it. Only the most basic framework of the genre remains intact – a skeleton on which a very different kind of film is hung.

Unlike most action films, The American is much more concerned with revealing the inner state of its anti-hero and the emotional consequences of his actions than it is in showing him commit those acts. It focuses in on the times in Jack/Edward’s life between his crimes, where the slow dissolution of his previous convictions occurs; where he is stalked by invisible threats and haunted by a growing conscience. This atmosphere is what’s photographed. This is what materializes as the center of the film.

Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville's 'Le Samouraï'

Most American action films are a counterpoint to Anton Corbijn’s austere film, but Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is certainly The American’s closest American counterpart. Not only does Unforgiven also reference Sergio Leone’s Westerns (it is a continuation of Eastwood’s archetypal role in the Leone films), but it similarly inverts its genre by soberly focusing on the anti-hero’s moral and interior life, and the rippling emotional fallout of his actions. Unforgiven and The American are even more closely related than The American and the Sergio Leone films it references. Like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is to the Spaghetti Western, Anton Corbijn’s The American is to the hitman film: it uses the end of a genre as its beginning.

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1 Comment in response to

The American

  1. louis says:

    What about “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”??

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