As an artist known primarily for his work as a music video director and band photographer, Anton Corbijn’s latest project The American (2010), starring George Clooney, could well be seen as a drastic departure from his well-established roots. Corbijn’s debut feature Control (2007) yielded great critical acclaim, although some may have noted that being a biopic of the late Ian Curtis, this didn’t really show a significant leap from his usual territory.
The American follows the story of Jack/Edward (Clooney), an assassin and expert weapons builder as he embarks on a task to provide a fellow spy, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), with a weapon for her next kill. Whilst, on duty he befriends Father Benedetto, a local priest played Paolo Bonacelli, and finds himself romantically drawn to a local prostitute called Clara (Violante Placido). These relationships cause Jack/Edward to reconsider his lifestyle as a hired killer and he decides to make this his final job. Somewhat predictably, things don’t quite pan out so easily.
For various reasons, I found The American crushingly disappointing. Being a huge fan of Corbijn’s work I had possibly set my expectations of the film a little high, yet I still believe The American to be one of the most criminally missed opportunities of the year. It is not Corbijn’s visual skills and sensibilities that are at fault here. The film is replete with stunning shots of spectacular landscapes and beautiful expanses of scenery, which both perfectly emphasise the loneliness of the protagonist and the ability of the artist behind the camera. What IS at fault here is the sense of impending and crushing boredom that sets in around 20 minutes into the piece.
Quite simply, The American is a film in which nothing happens for approximately 110 minutes. For long periods, you could be forgiven for thinking that you had walked into an extended perfume or clothes commercial, with many a sequence of Clooney, seemingly performing on autopilot, driving and wandering around alone, looking effortlessly cool, but not doing anything! The only thing he really seems to do is have sex with local prostitute Clara, and with her share a small amount of clunky, unconvincing dialogue.
With regards to Corbijn’s directorial style, as mentioned above, he certainly knows how to compose superb shots and utilise his idyllic surroundings to the highest level. What must be questioned though is his lack of discipline or ability to find an even balance between style and narrative exposition. With such exquisite locations in Italy and Sweden at the heart of the film, Corbijn’s instincts as a photographer take over, resulting in far too many lingering shots that would look great in a holiday brochure, but ultimately hinder and slow the pace of the film.
The performances on display are all perfectly adequate, with the cast making the most of the lacklustre screenplay they have to work with. George Clooney does his usual George Clooney thing as well as ever, providing just the right amount of suave sophistication to the role. Most notably, however, is the performance of Paolo Bonacelli as Father Benedetto. Despite his role being relatively minimal, his presence immediately lights up the screen, conveying a much needed sense of charm and humour to the film.
Somewhere in the midst of this enormous catalogue of, admittedly, wonderful images, was the potential for a fantastically stylish spy movie. With a director of undoubted ability at the helm and a protagonist that appears to be custom built for George Clooney, The American could genuinely have been something special. Sadly, in spite of the cast’s attempts there is nowhere near the required amount of characterisation or plot development.
This major flaw makes it almost impossible to invest anything in the protagonist or any of the other key characters. Although commendable for his decision to remove himself from his comfort zone, I for one feel that Corbijn’s vast experience and finely honed abilities at shooting in the world of music and performers is where he clearly excels. Whatever he does choose to work on next, let’s just hope its results are closer to that of the majestic Control and not this forgettable flop.