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.
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)