Film >About the soufflé
Dropping mere days after the surprisingly strong opening weekend for Takers, a crime flick called “junk food cinema” by fellow local critic Brian Orndorf – not to mention its bigger, louder brother, The Expendables – George Clooney’s The American could not come at a more welcome, if puzzling, time. Helmed by Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn, this tale of an assassin completing his last mission is, by any comparison, fine dining.
The film opens with dead silence and a Swedish cabin surrounded by blinding white snow. Clooney and “a friend” (who happens to be a beautiful woman) venture out, their steps shaky as
their boots crunch the ground. Within moments, Clooney kills three people, hops in a car and takes off for the slightly warmer environs of Andria, a tucked-away Italian hideout and awaits his next assignment. It’s given to him in a classic spy exchange over coffee.
As it turns out, he’s not so much an assassin as he is a craftsman: He’s charged with assembling and calibrating a sniper rifle. He seems to know instinctively that he may end up in its sights, but he does the job, lives amongst the people and develops feelings for a local prostitute. Mostly he waits, eyes forever shifting, nerves jumping at every pop.
Corbijn, in only his second feature film (he’s well known for his music videos for Depeche Mode, U2 and Nirvana), luxuriates in the on-location setting and his crew’s sound design. Rowan Joffe’s script keeps the dialogue to a minimum, giving Clooney a great excuse to disappear within the town; he likes to tuck his hands in his jacket pockets and fold into his lanky frame. Most of Andria is made of stone, allowing his character to dash in and out of the frame in no time, a shadow amongst shadows.
There’s not much plot to speak of, so the mood is the thing and Corbijn finds one, appropriately, left behind by Michelangelo Antonioni when the latter came to America: his slightly disinterested, private-party camera of La Notte if Sergio Leone’s ticking-clock moralism were dropped in from above. (Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West can be seen in the background at a bar.) Corbijn smartly keeps the focus off the plot itself, which is riddled with clunky setups that never pay off and tacked-on visual metaphors. (Clooney has a butterfly tattoo, reads butterfly guides and more than one person calls him “Mister Butterfly.” Do we really need bookended chrysalis shots to get that he’s going to change?)
The ironically titled American is slow and cool, more interested in the how and when than the why or how loud. It’s a soufflé helplessly set out in the middle of a KenTacoHut stampede, and I suspect it will pay dearly for that at the box office. Luckily, Corbijn’s art is just that – art – and it can wait to be appreciated; after all, The American has all the time in the world.