The American, Anton Corbijn, 104 mins (15)

Anton Corbijn's handsome second feature leaves its superstar stranded between God and 'amore'

George Clooney is the Lonesome Man of American Cinema. Despite his penchant for playing affable goons, he's most at ease as a solitary operator evading attachments – see Up In The Air or the corporate drama Michael Clayton.

It was only a matter of time before he turned up in a European-set existential thriller, and here he is in Anton Corbijn's The American.

An existential thriller, you might say, resembles a thriller but is fastidiously parsimonious with the thrills – pretty much the case here. But you could also see this sub-genre as the sort of film in which the hero is defined entirely by what he does. What Clooney's hero, Jack, actually does in The American is to fiddle with guns, brood behind dark glasses and do press-ups in empty stone-walled rooms.

On the run from some messy business in Sweden, Jack is sent to hide in an Italian mountain village: "Don't talk to anyone," his contact warns him, "and above all, don't make any friends." Jack follows orders almost to the letter, avoiding all human interaction – except where there are symbolic possibilities on offer. That is, he sees quite a lot of the local prostitute and of the village priest, a raspy-voiced man of the world (Paolo Bonacelli) who can't resist peering into his soul the moment they meet.

Jack keeps insisting that he's no good with machines, which is as close as he comes to cracking a joke – he's soon seen assembling a hi-tech rifle out of machine parts. A mysterious femme fatale (Thekla Reuten) – the sort you expect to be literally fatale – turns up and trades gun talk with him, and a Swede is spotted mooching balefully around town. Clooney's Jack glides through all this with grizzled grace, maintaining a constant mood of quietly troubled alertness.

We never know who Jack is working for, whom he's running from, who's after the people who are after him . ... Such questions don't always need to be answered in an existential drama, but in a thriller proper, they do – and only very few films genuinely walk the delicate line between genre and philosophical art cinema. Adapted by Rowan Joffe from a novel by Martin Booth, The American catches a tone of chilly enigma, but because Clooney's presence inevitably raises certain mainstream expectations, we want to know a few background basics, or at least have some compelling reason to care about his dilemma.

Unfortunately, Corbijn and Joffe introduce the human touch through the film's least plausible aspect: Jack's relationship with Clara (Violante Placido), the sultriest and softest-hearted prostitute in the Abruzzo region. She falls for Jack in a big way – which is where the film starts dabbling with slightly sappy notions about redemption through love. The film ends with a bloody showdown and a passionate clinch at a religious parade – Jack caught between God and earthly amore, which is a pretty crass way for such a high-toned film to lose its cool.

Photographer-turned-film-maker Corbijn made a superb feature debut with Control, about Joy Division. Control felt like a film that Corbijn deeply cared about, and The American doesn't – not that you necessarily need such a project to ooze passionate conviction. Visually, Corbijn and his cameraman, Martin Ruhe, style The American most imposingly, with august near-minimalism. The colour scheme is dominated by nervously queasy yellows, and some shots are masterfully restrained: e.g. Clooney framed at the very edge of the screen, looking out at a railway platform.

The film doesn't, however, wear its artiness on its sleeve – which gives it a considerable edge over Jim Jarmusch's thematically similar anti-thriller The Limits of Control, auto-asphyxiated by chic. The American is an elegant, hand-crafted shell of a film. But as Control showed, Corbijn is capable of far more. As for its star, he's as watchable as ever – but The American is only required viewing if you happen to be taking a specialist course in George Clooney Studies.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney takes a look at world conflict, as seen from the French art-house (Of Gods and Men), and from Julian Schnabel's studio window (Miral)

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before