Anton Corbijn’s The American may not be very popular at the box office, nor a particularly great film. But for all that it is not–and there’s a long list of negations on which this remarkable film rests so precariously– it is one of the most affecting psychological thrillers in a long, long time, perhaps since Peter Handke’s Caché.
The American tosses a few prized conventions of the thriller aside and delivers a film whose “hero” (played superbly by George Clooney) is a killer of shifting identity, in the grip of a mission that is known to us only in its most minimal details. Yet we go along with him; and for all his cold heartlessness, for all his calculating moves and looks over his shoulder, he extracts much more from us than mere curiosity and love of the thrill. We are, in some way, complicit in the unfolding of this man’s story, if for no other reason than to know the details, to explain, to clarify.
In the end, we know that we cannot get the answers we are foolishly seeking. We may throw our hands up in frustration or joy. But we do know one thing, which brackets the film and brings its opening and final scenes into a knot: our hero’s hunger for love, restrained as he is in expressing it, diverted as he seems to be (initially) by purchased sex. It is not an accident, therefore, that for all its quiet horrors, for all that we may find loathsome in the character of George Clooney (he peddles in violence, after all), The American ends up rejecting the very material that it portray with such palpable tension and ferocious beauty.
As for the film-making itself, here too the conventions are all sneered at although there is more than enough blood and gore; weapons and corpses; dark alleys and stark restaurants, not to mention the Italian landscape which has a strangely eerie beauty to it. But Corbijn works methodically, paying attention to slow, patient design, and in this he is no different from the hero some of whose most powerful scenes revolve around assembling a weapon. If violence in films is meant to arouse our senses, to awaken us in some visceral way, then Corbjin’s photographic approach is an alternative to this hackneyed, commercialized motive. As maudlin as it sounds, it is worth repeating–that The American offers the beauty of art itself as corrective and solace to the violence and its exploitation in film. That both violence and beauty spring from the same soil is the great, very quietly (almost inaudibly) spoken equation of the film.
To the Italian landscape Corbijn gives both majesty and menace, grandeur and grime–but most of all proportion against which human beings, often in their cars, are diminished entities, not the larger-than-life but often vacuous personages of the standard American thriller. Corbijn glorifies nothing, neither the violence nor the sex nor the chase. He rejects all forms of sentimentalization and saturation, which are one and the same thing, after all. For sentimentality is nothing more than the holding hostage of passing emotions; it is a form of refined violence in which we partake, all of us, without much thought or remorse.
And finally, what of the title? In its brevity, it suggests that which has been omitted but imprinted in our film memory: the Ugly and the Quiet. But our hero is not Every American Man, and it is silly to try and find allegorical or ideological meaning in his actions and motives. If anything, our hero operates beyond or, perhaps more aptly, below such redemptive categories. It may be more generative to think of him as the American away from home, rudderless and without much of a moral compass certainly, alone for sure, but in the end a person we slowly begin to care about and whose fate brings a lump to our throats. As our pathos for this most unlikely of heroes surfaces from somewhere deep within our consciousness, we know that there is something of him in all of us, if not in his murderous actions then certainly in the way in which the trajectory of this slice of his life takes him in the end to that lake, to that woman, and to the imprint of a butterfly fluttering across the screen.
(See The American, if you can, in a movie theater and not on a small television screen, at a cinema that does not raise the volume to deafening heights. The Landmark Embassy Cinema in Waltham, MA., where I saw it, had the volume low; it was as if The American was murmuring to us, and with us, which is the only way to watch this quiet, slow heartbreak of a film.)