Like the mysterious guest who crashes the masked ball in Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Masque of The Red Death," The American slipped into the multiplex last Wednesday and held illimitable dominion over this weekend's moviegoers. Director Anton Corbijn's meditative thriller also marks the long-awaited end of the summer movie season; it sweeps away the gimmickry and F/X that power summer fare, both good and bad, to offer a taste of more mature pleasures.
George Clooney plays Jack, a weapons specialist hiding out in a remote Italian village and hoping to pull off one last score before some shady types get to him first. This narrative template was once novel in the 1970s, especially in the hands of filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola (1974's The Conversation) and Michelangelo Antonioni (1975's The Passenger). But its conventions are by now as familiar as buddy-cop comedies and sperm-donor rom-coms. Corbijn thus decides to follow the lead of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, whose 2009 spy-dream The Limits of Control abstracted and ritualized the spy film's clandestine meetings, sexy Bond girl encounters, and intimations of global conspiracy almost to the point of incoherence. Like Jarmusch, Corbijn wants to reach the core of the thriller by paring away its excesses. In The American, it doesn't matter whom Jack works for, where he's been, or what he's going to do — the only important thing is whether or not he has lost his edge.
Corbijn's previous theatrical release was the underrated Ian Curtis biopic Control, which was memorable for its cinematography and its fascination with individuals at work. Like Control's recording-studio sessions with Curtis' band Joy Division, the scenes in The American that show Jack sitting in his bare apartment and building a rifle are unusually strong and compelling. The clink of metal, the smooth whirr of a drill and the meticulous hollowing-out of a silencer barrel are not meant to glorify this rifle's uses — they exist chiefly to show how much patience and hard work go into the manufacture of even a dubious cultural product.
For those unenamored of watching craftsmen do their thing, though, a movie that dotes on a gunsmith can be a tough sit. However, Corbijn uses solid technique to engender tension throughout the film. He uses shallow focus judiciously when Jack is walking along the cobblestone steps; everything around and behind him is blurry and indistinct. Corbijn also frequently shoots Jack from behind, so the camera seems like it's constantly stalking him. Communicating this general paranoia is the closest thing to character revelation either Corbijn or Clooney approach.
Clooney's character is no charmer here. He is a cipher who sleeps with a loaded pistol and is either immune or indifferent to the warblings about sin and forgiveness sung to him by an Italian priest who feels airlifted in from a Graham Greene novel. The mounting, almost imperceptible tragedy of The American comes from the realization that this shell of a man simply can't pack up his stuff and exit stage left.