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The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010)
Veteran music video director Anton Corbijn shows marked improvement as a feature filmmaker in his second effort, The American. This hard-boiled hitman tale successfully crystalizes an overfamiliar genre down into its raw fundamentals, preferring a slow burn to any overt action. Offering little more than a girl, a gun, and the distant possibility of redemption, The American turns its understatement into a virtue, reinvigorating the clichés of the hitman film with a dry, detached cool that recalls the legendary work of Jean-Pierre Melville. George Clooney stars as the titular character, who seems so professional that he presumably never offers up his real name. After a surprising opening gunfight leaves him tragically isolated, he retires to a remote Italian village, where he awaits what will turn out to be his final assignment.
To be certain, The American offers not only a fantasy in its portrayal of its cool protagonist and its idyllic European backdrop, but also a certain retrograde charm. By and large, they don’t make movies like this any longer, and haven’t done so since the 1970s (1971’s The Last Run echoes strongly here). The American’s closest point of comparison in recent cinema is probably Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, which reveled in similarly minimalist assassin action. Where Limits was philosophical, though, The American tends to be literal, focused on the physical, the routine, and the boredom of a profession spent largely trying to remain inconspicuous. Clooney’s performance belies little. Corbijn includes few of the monologues that came regularly in the Jarmusch film. His is a hitman film that respects the plots and arcs that drive the genre. Due to the pacing and the slow, quiet accumulation of events, though, The American feels fresh instead of hackneyed, at least until its final act’s narrative quickening pushes things back toward the conventional.
To some degree, The American is difficult to assess because it makes its stylish yearning seem so effortless. Corbijn sustains his mood for so long and calculates his drama so precisely that the film acquires a certain detached quality. Like his protagonist, who spends no small amount of screen time polishing his latest weapon to perfection, the director works in a finely calculated manner. He thinks before he feels. While the jolt that comes with The American’s opening scene provides an unsettling emotional undercurrent that resonates throughout the rest of the movie, for some viewers, it’s likely to be too little. For those willing to accept a slower pace, even if the resulting film is not exactly contemplative, however, The American could be a pleasurable experience.