The American

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

6 May

George Clooney born, 1961

On this day in 1961, George Timothy Clooney was born in Lexington, Kentucky. Raised a Catholic in a showbiz family (father a news anchor, aunt singer Rosemary Clooney, mother a beauty queen), George was a bright student. He was also adept at sport and at one point wanted to become a professional baseball player. Instead he studied broadcast journalism, taking small roles as an extra on TV to make a bit of money on the side, turning up in shows such as Centennial and The Golden Girls before getting a semi-regular gig on the sitcom Roseanne. In 1994 he got his break playing Dr Doug Ross in the TV series ER. By the time he left the show in 1999 he was world famous. Clooney’s film career has been eclectic – gonzo grindhouse (From Dusk till Dawn), romcom (One Fine Day), comicbook adaptations (Batman & Robin), satire (Three Kings), musical (O Brother Where Art Thou?), caper (Ocean’s 11). He went into movie production with Steven Soderbergh, founding the Section Eight company, who have Insomnia, Far From Heaven and A Scanner Darkly on their credits, as well as a string of Soderbergh/Clooney films. After that he formed Smokehouse Pictures with Grant Heslov. Smokehouse films include The American, Argo and August: Osage County.

The American (2010, dir: Anton Corbijn)

Photographer-turned-director Anton Corbijn’s follow-up to Control, his film about British band Joy Division, wasn’t that well received. Perhaps it’s too stylish for some people. Too muted.

It’s a “one last job” spy thriller in the glossy Euro tradition of the 1970s, all procedure, terse conversations, deadpan features, pregnant pauses, with The Day of the Jackal an obvious reference, a notion that’s reinforced the first time we see George Clooney’s Jack rapidly assembling a high velocity rifle from unlikely parts. Clooney is not only the star of the film but almost its entire point. As The American, a hitman of dubious honour possibly a little past his peak, Clooney’s gum-chewing, impassive features have to be searched for evidence of what’s going on below the surface. Is he a total cool professional? Have the years taken their toll? Is he about to snap and give it all up? It seems like an odd thing to say, but it’s Clooney’s lack of expression that drives up the tension in the film – Corbijn knows that, as seasoned viewers of films like this, we’ll make assumptions about the psychological state of the main protagonist. And he forces us to focus hard on Clooney’s face, yet witholds final evidence to prove or disprove those assumptions, as does Clooney.

And then we actually get a plot point. It seems that someone close to this cool pro is a stool pigeon. Someone has sold him out. Who is it? Is the hitman about to get hit? That’s all there is to The American, until the final scenes set in a small Italian village, which feature a female assassin in a cat suit. Of course they do.

This is a beautifully conceived and made film, it’s hitman arthouse, with stylistic homages to films of yore – the sex scene with lots of nudity is a clear throwback, but then so is Clooney’s early meeting with a mystery woman, a newspaper beneath her arm to indicate she’s his contact. Somewhere in the mix is a bit of Antonioni – the bleak existential despair, the beautiful empty vistas – such as we got in The Passenger. Then it was Jack Nicholson as an American drowning in empty European exotica; here it’s Clooney. Playing a character called Jack. Coincidence? Probably not.

Why Watch?

  • A great existential hitman thriller
  • Martin Ruhe’s shallow-focus cinematography
  • Craggy Johan Leysen as the American’s control
  • A beautifully stylish movie

The American – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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