An American in Europe
Anton Corbijn, celebrity photographer, music video maker and latterly film director, has followed up the brilliant, breathtaking Control with this superb addition to George Clooney’s body of work. Set in Italy – that is, the real-life Italy of small, hillside towns and wrinkled folk, as opposed to Julia Roberts’ Rome and its glamorati – Clooney plays a hitman who’s preparing to do “just one last job” before retirement. It’s a set-up we know well – Robert De Niro in Heat, and again in The Score, latterly Ben Affleck in The Town, and numerous other examples. But it’s the way Corbijn spins this familiar tale that sends The American straight to the top of your must-see list.
Of course it looks great. As evidenced in Control, Corbijn understands lighting, composition and cinematography better than most more experienced directors. The film also plays with sound perfectly – just the right amount of musical soundtrack (nice use of “Tu Vuo Fa L’Americano” which was used in The Talented Mr Ripley – another film about a docile, gentlemanly killer, set in the beautiful parts of one of the world’s most intoxicating countries), and subtle use of strings to anticipate a moment of danger. The sound is so unobtrusive, yet the mood so frequently tense, that it clearly works.
Most of all, it is the immaculate pacing that marks The American out from other assassin/thriller fare – no jump cuts, no explosions, and a car chase that is actually more of a Vespa + car pursuit. There are long shots, held for a long time, and slow close-ups, yet we are captivated throughout. Clooney puts in a serious performance, admittedly one we’ve seen from him before but still authentic and engaging nonetheless (his character is a taciturn chap, and we know next to nothing of his past, or indeed his motivations). His main interactions are with a fellow assassin played by Dutch actress Thekla Reuten, who sports a different (fabulous) hairstyle for each of their meetings, and a far-too-gorgeous and unbroken prostitute (Italian actress/singer Violante Placido – whose name curiously evokes both violence and calm). The local priest lectures our hero on sin and tries to offer him a means to absolution, but Jack/Eduardo is having none of it.
Other joys include a clip from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West (also a masterpiece in languid cinematography and exceptional sound design) and the butterfly motif throughout. Watching Clooney create and assemble a bespoke rifle is fascinating. And all the while it is impossible not to root for him, ignoring his profession and the body count, and long for him to find happiness at last. As the titles rolled I was practically gasping at how terrific the film was – a flawless piece of cinema, a superb night at the flicks.