Anton Corbijn's The American begins with a short burst of austere action--regarded flatly, from a distance. Corbijn drains the scene of its sensationalism; there is no scare music, no tight close-ups. It is an unfortunate thing that happens, and that we move on from. There will be a good long while before there is more action. There is some at the end, also. But The American is not about action, and audiences looking for it will be disappointed, perhaps angered. It is a deliberate, methodical picture. Some have called it "slow." They're right in literal definition, if not in connotation. There's a whole lot happening in it while nothing is happening.
In that opening sequence, Jack (George Clooney) is enjoying a snowy getaway in Sweden. He is with an attractive woman; they seem very much in love. But as they're out walking through the freshly-fallen snow, she notices another set of tracks. The man who made those tracks is, within seconds, shooting at them. Jack draws a gun. "Why do you have a gun?" the woman asks. Jack finds the would-be assassin, and kills him. He then sends the woman to call the police, and when her back is turned, he kills her, coldly and efficiently. He goes to Rome and calls Pavel (Johan Leysen) for help. Pavel is, to say the least, unsympathetic. "Don't make any friends, Jack," he says. "You used to know that."
The film that unwinds from there is a quiet, meditative character study; as Jack arrives in one Italian village, then moves to another, making acquaintances and lining up a job customizing a long-range rifle, Corbijn demands our patience. He's trying out a deliberate, distinctively European tone, tenor, and (especially) pace. The American has the feel of a '60s French crime pic--a Melville effort, perhaps?--or a '70s Italian film; mid-period Leone, maybe, or Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, particularly in its Morricone-style score, which is cleverly replaced by the real thing at one point.
Of course, films like those are the precise antithesis of a modern, star-driven Hollywood action movie, which is part of the reason The American should be celebrated. This is not to imply that all of Corbijn's throwback moves work--there is a fine line between the familiar and the cliché, and certainly we could have found a less predictable way for Jack to fall in love than to find that old standby, the hooker with the heart of gold. His relationship with a local priest is intriguing; their spiritual debates less so. And so on.
Corbijn is a photographer and music video director whose debut film, the Ian Curtis biopic Control, had a great many admirers (though I was not one of them). The title of that film seems the rule of this one; there must be a tremendous temptation, for any filmmaker, to amp up the melodrama when dealing with a story of assassins and double-crosses and the like. But Corbijn keeps the narrative tightly reined, so that the climactic events, when they arrive, are devastating. He also lucks out in hitching himself to Clooney, who does some of his best work to date here. There's a sadness in his weathered face throughout the film, tracing back to the particular (and chilling) way that his eyes go dead when he pulls the trigger on that poor woman in the opening sequence. The entire performance is borne out of that moment. This is an actor of subtlety and skill, who never has to reach for effect, and The American is the ideal showcase for how much he can do by doing very little.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The VC-1 transfer is as handsome and austere as the film itself, striking and evocative, from the gorgeously snowy vistas of the Swedish prologue to the sunny cobblestone streets of the Italian village. The smooth color schemes of Martin Ruhe's cinematography are faithfully rendered; saturation is vivid, yet not overwhelming. Grain is a bit heavy in spots, but keeps the 2.35:1 image film-like and evocative. It's not hard to make a great-looking movie on locations like these, but the loveliness and detail of the image are nonetheless commendable.
The American is such a quiet film--literally--that the precision of the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track may be easy to undersell. But it shines in the showcase scenes (like the shoot-out and chase at the hour mark), and environmental effects (like the trains in the Rome station, or the morning birds in the village cemetery) are well-placed and atmospheric. Dialogue, while often barely above a whisper, is clear and audible throughout.
Spanish and French 5.1 and Descriptive Video Service tracks are also available, as are English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles.
Director Anton Corbijn does a bit too much narrating in his Audio Commentary, and his thick Dutch accent occasionally obscures, but he's got a melodic, almost hypnotic speaking voice, and his comments (particularly in regards to the film's photography and compositions) are insightful.
The handful of Deleted Scenes (5:34) don't add much; they're mostly addendums and afterthoughts. "Journey to Redemption: The Making of The American" (10:52) is short but fairly informative; it also offers some enjoyable footage of Clooney, who can apparently turn on a dime, fooling around between takes.
The disc is also BD-Live compatible, and includes instructions and code for downloading a Digital Copy of the film from iTunes.
The American demands a degree of diligence that American filmgoers are often loathe to give. It is not an easy film. It is not an obvious one. But for viewers with the fortitude for it, who don't mind reconfiguring their expectations and rhythms a bit for a couple of hours, it is a moody, sensuous chamber piece, with a gratifying and touching payoff.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.