Of all the visual metaphors for sexual tension, I am surprised that this one has not been done before (feel free to correct me if I am wrong): A woman slowly, but efficiently assembles a heavily caliber weapon, lingering on every pin and component, literally screwing them in. It is a moment of visual wit adrift in a sea of self-serious and meticulous construction. From the initial ultra-slow dissolve you can safely guess that a world-class photographer is at the helm of this film. The director is Anton Corbijn, the dutch photographer who defined much of the style of a diverse group of rock and roll acts (From U2 to Bjork) in Album art, magazine stills and music videos before moving into feature film territory with a biopic on Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. There is no denying that his new film, The American, is stunning to look at. From its icy space in Sweden to its cobble-stoned Italian village (Castel del Monte will surely get a boost in tourism after this) nestled in the mountains as well as the framing of some of the more beautiful human specimens on the planet there is a diligent respect for space and geography but it seems to eat away at everything else in the film. Compare The American to other art-genre pictures such as Le Samourai or Point Blank or The Limey – films that feature anti-heroes who have little in their lives but their professional details – and there is something distinctly lacking. Maybe I am missing something, but those former films seem to have something else on their plate beyond pure craftsmanship, whereas The American is all craft and no soul. It plays well enough while its on, but evacuates your brain the moment the end credits roll.
The story, told in a deliberate fashion with oblique dialogue and sensual visual palette, plays like a James Bond film. In the pre-credits sequence, George Clooney, who is either Jack or Edward, or perhaps someone else entirely (other than some military-type tattoos ironically featuring “Veritas Aequitas”) is chilling by the fire with his lady friend in an isolated cabin Sweden. Upon taking a walk around the grounds of the icy and still hideaway, a rapid succession of shooting and murder leaves ‘the American’ fleeing the country to Rome. His only contact (the requisite elderly mysterious yet well dressed European) gives him a new job that allows for a low profile while his betters figure out what happened in Sweden. The job is very simple, build a custom-made rifle for an assassin and lay low, avoiding any contact or relationship beyond the job. Not unlike 007, the American doesn’t exactly follow orders (he doesn’t even go to the particular town specified by his contact and dumps the cell phone favouring a more old-fashioned way of communicating with his contact), while still maintaining a degree of professionalism. The local catholic priest senses a troubled soul and invites Jack over for dinner and civilized conversation, while a little tension is let off with a (gorgeous) local prostitute. Eschewing shoot outs and action, for a more meditative look a the lonely agent, the focus is on the time spent in Castel del Monte, his relationship with the prostitute, which threatens to go beyond a simple professional transaction, and the minutiae of modifying a high-caliber rifle.
There is a satisfying rhythm in the details and the crisp, no-nonsense (almost Mamet-esque) dialogue is a welcome change for exposition rich spy films that offer little beyond stale action and convoluted plot. There is also no denying that The American ultimately culminates to a point with a few twists along the way, but Anton Corbijn has a long way to go before he is at the level of Jim Jarmusch for this sort of thing. This film as it stands, is a butterfly pinned to wood.