If Anton Corbijn's The American has any clear directive, it is to mess with its audience. Ostensibly a thriller about a hitman/weapon maker, The American sets up every trope connected to these kinds of stories: the one last job, the killer hiding out after being compromised, a sinner's quest for peace and the battle for his soul. Then, Corbijn lets all of these stories drift away. Instead, the director returns to the existentialist territory of Melville's great Le Samourai, creating a star vehicle that dares Americans to line up for a film they will inevitably despise.
After a tranquil opening that places the protagonist, Jack (George Clooney) in an idyllic Swedish forest with a female companion, the film immediately throws a curveball when mysterious men start shooting. That Jack should encounter someone trying to kill him is of course totally unsurprising, but the measures he takes to conceal his identity are shocking and demonstrate that the James Bond type can be dangerous for lovers not simply because other people might shoot at them.
Having been discovered, Jack retreats to Italy and meets his boss, Pavel, who tells the killer to hide out in a nearby town until further notice. On the way, Jack suspects he might be driving into a trap and heads to another town in the vicinity. There we spend the next hour and a half, roaming the cobblestone streets and surrounding country roads of the gorgeous Castel del Monte. Jack poses as a photographer, a believable cover in such a pastoral village.
Practically nothing happens in The American, which is precisely the point but naturally does not console those going in hoping for some exciting ride with one of America's best A-listers. Jack befriends an old priest who speaks to our protagonist as if he knows what Jack really does for a living. Yet he never puts up a major fight for Jack's soul, and he even reveals parts of his own past that make him sound like an empathetic friend rather than a well-meaning but imperious holy man. When he tells Jack, "You must believe in a hell, because you live in it," he sounds not like a priest urging confession to ensure Jack a place in heaven but someone offering him a shoulder to cry on to make his life on this plane of existence more bearable.
Jack also spends time with a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), and even she manages to fall for him in a way that adheres to the endless hooker with a heart of gold stories while digging into the cliché. Clara doesn't beg Jack to take her away, and Jack only once asks her not to go to work. By skirting any open, stilted conversations about love, the two craft one of the only convincing hooker-john relationships I've seen, one that works because it's treated more or less like a normal relationship and not some sort of validation for the prostitute (or the man who initially does nothing more than pay her for sex).
Corbijn keeps everything elliptical. Jack's assignment in hiding is to make a custom rifle for another assassin, and his most technical work involves making a suppressor to dissipate the sound of gunfire, making it impossible for anyone to tell where the shooter is located. Similarly, Rowan Joffe's script and Corbijn's direction scatter the elements of the hitman thriller so you can't trace the clichés back to their sources. The American embodies the genre even as it deconstructs everything it can with a fluid grace.
The American constantly rubs against a typical plot, only to cut back to the moments in-between the action. With its constant shots of winding mountain roads and contemplative car rides, you could almost call the film "Abbas Kiarostami's The Killer." Here is a thriller where the most exciting moments are teases, where the much-delayed payoffs are intentionally stark and cold. After testing his rifle with the assassin (Thekla Reuten), Jack can pause everything to watch an endangered butterfly fly around an untouched park. Even the other killer stops to watch, and the shared moment of regret between them, not sexual tension but an understanding of the game they cannot escape, is surprisingly moving. The protagonist knows that he's being sent into hiding just so his boss knows where to find him, and when the Swedes who sent people after him track Jack down, it's unclear whether they work for some rival or simply Pavel.
People know Corbijn from his Ian Curtis biopic Control, but even that subdued film cannot compare to the beauty of his style here, an atmosphere far removed from the music videos upon which he made his initial reputation. His background as a photographer serves him better here than it did with Control, which the director made partially because he photographed Joy Division in their brief history. Consider the opening credits, the best I've seen all year (even above the frenetic animation of Enter the Void). Jack drives through a tunnel so long that it requires lighting even during the day. The dark yellow of the lights casts Clooney in contemplative silhouette, the end of his other professional-in-hiding movie, Michael Clayton, shot from a different angle. When the camera shifts to the back seat looking forward, the world outside the car is blurred in shallow focus. Jack cannot see the road ahead. At last, he sees the literal light at the end of the tunnel, but it does not seem to draw any closer, remaining seemingly the same distance away even as the dot of light grows. Finally, Jack reaches the end and the screen fades to pure white. Is the symbolism obvious? Sure, but Corbijn does not place serious weight on the moment, letting it scatter as he does everything else, preserving the beauty lest it be endlessly dissected.
The general public reacted to The American as if George Clooney had personally come to each theater and splashed acid in everyone's face. In fact, had he done so, they might have at least been excited that something happened. I, however, was mesmerized. Deconstruction these days is de rigeur, something that every hip writer does to show that he's above something as vulgar as a genre film. Corbijn, however, truly examines: he breaks apart each cliché, studies it, and gently puts it back together in a way that looks different but works the same. In the process, he makes a work of art where so many strive to be "Liked" on Facebook. Clooney has been trying for the last decade to make a serious artist out of himself, and if he hadn't succeeded before (I would argue that he has), his willingness to alienate 95 percent of his American audience surely proves he's gotten his wish. That's the quiet hilarity of the film: the Italian characters routinely mention his nationality, as does the title, yet it could never play in the country its protagonist represents.