There’s something a little bit magical about The American’s devious nature; I’m not sure it was intended by director Anton Corbijn, but you have to admire the way it gallantly seduced American audiences into approaching it like a classical ’70s spy-action film starring George Clooney (a perfect match for that sort of role if ever there was one) and then tricked them into watching what is a deliberately challenging, resistant film. Vaguely setting itself up with a harried narrative about an assassin scoping out and setting up for a contract in a small town in mountainous, rural Italy, the film is instead a thoughtful, reflective, molasses-slow work about an old soul and the resolution only a natural cleansing in a small-town locale can bring. It is a meditative film, above all, and an extremely effective meditation at that.
Corbijn is more a craftworker than an auteur, which is for the best; he gives his films a certain blunt efficiency that sets up the scaffolding for the characters and the narrative without tying up the works with meandering thematic treatments. He’s a remarkably humble director, but not an invisible one, and The American is the film in which he feels the freest, the most open to allowing his personality to drip into the film. The hallowed, labyrinthine small-town that winds through the film was said by Corbijn to have been inspired by Nicolas Roeg’s seminal horror film Don’t Look Now, where the serpentine corridors of a mystical Venice served as an expressionist prism through which to understand the trauma of a pair of parents coping with the loss of their child.
But The American uses the location differently; Clooney’s character isn’t so much coping with tragedy as trying to find a reason to cope with anything. He isn’t ailing because he long ago gave up the concern to ail in the first place; he’s a cold soul, but Corbijn warms him up a little with a more sensuous depiction of Italy that never gives in to the sort of fetishistic depiction Italy is often afforded in films that see it as a sort of gateway to promiscuity and self-parodic pleasure. It is a warm film meant to quietly provide some redemption for a man who long ago lost interest in redemption (to contrast with the chilly A Most Wanted Man, Corbijn’s next film, which affords no redemption to a man who is desperately looking for it).
The film’s Italian setting also begs references – some of which are explicit – to Sergio Leone’s classical Italian Westerns where location served more as a mythic space for individuals to play out their own goals and, in a few cases, redemption quests. Those films centered similarly taciturn men – the brusque Clint Eastwood and the steeley, leathery Charles Bronson as men of few words and deliberate actions – and Clooney’s character here is very much in the same spirit. Ideologically, the film is definitely closer to its Western forebearers than its horror ones; like a great many classic dusty genre pieces of the American tradition, it uses location to delineate physical as well as moral conflict, but Corbijn brings his own more European influences in how he uses pastel colors and alternates between muted, deadened locations and lusty, lurid ones depending upon mood and the needs of character.
For his part, Clooney rejects his usually charismatic demeanor, losing even the vestiges of stubborn charisma he has recently brought to roles in The Descendants and Tomorrowland; he creates a hollow persona with just enough hints to fill out an identity for a figure who is largely defined by his inability to hold a true identity anymore.
The American makes references to classic Americans-in-Italy films (Leone’s films literally moving American actors to Italy, even if the films weren’t set in Italy as such, and Roeg’s film recalling the long giallo tradition of Westerners moving to the steamy Mediterranean nation). But it doesn’t need those allusions; it is a literate, aware film, but it has a life, a story to tell, and a style to tell it in, all its own.
A Most Wanted Man
Discussing A Most Wanted Man necessarily necessitates confronting its reality as the vessel for the final lead performance from Phillip Seymour Hoffman – perhaps the finest American male actor of his generation. His performance doesn’t dominate the film, even though Hoffman could be a dominating figure. It is a humble performance, quietly encapsulating the spirit of writer John le Carre in his brusque, somewhat brutish clipped words and shifted eyes ever-searching for humanity without ever revealing it. For, in le Carre’s world of spies, searching to identify your humanity is just about the only thing you aren’t allowed to look for.
At the end of the film, Hoffman lets it all out in a word, a word it feels like he’s been holding on to and preparing for throughout the entire film, and his entire life. It’s less an explosion, though, than an implosion, the world having bested him and taken him to his knees; Hoffman explores all the caverns of a singular curse word like excavating a cave without a rope, knowing his character is lost to the darkness and knowing not what to do but to give in to the character’s failure. Just like Hoffman, in fact, and if the actor was hurting while filming, or left a shell of a man, it shows through in what is insurmountably a walking shamble of a performance – a corpse in human clothing.
Hoffman isn’t the only corpselike figure in the film though. Director Anton Corbijn’s frosted-over style subsumes the film. His cities just feel damp, cold, and rainy; even when there’s no hint of weather, it is less a a beacon of hope than a statement to how his cities don’t even have enough life left to rain anymore. There’s a clarity and efficiency to his direction, much like le Carre’s words, but we don’t detect a storm brewing. No, the storm came years ago, washed away all the life left over here, washed the mud away from a few coffins, and let the zombies rise up and walk about doing their daily shuffle.
Corbijn’s film is necessarily a clinical creature, regimented and ritualistic in habit, a work somewhat diffused of life and largely interested in keeping that way. It grazes on a chilly, almost Michael Man-esque menace, especially in the way Corbijn suffuses his deeply Germanic film with a barren emptiness. He creates a dense, animalistic conglomerate of hard-edged buildings that provide plenty of labyrinthine halls to hide in but still somehow feels empty and wide-open. As though you can hide anywhere, but someone, somewhere is still watching you.
It is a hard film to love for this reason, but an extremely easy film to appreciate and respect. It is less sensuous and metatextually critical of American action film habits than Corbijn’s The American, but on its own terms, as a chilly, deliberate exploration of a torpid man quietly searching for morality in an unflagging, mechanical system bent on that man’s destruction, it is eminently watchable, even confrontational cinema. It works, ultimately, because unlike so many films that try to play dead but still want to lay down the Oscarbait warmth, A Most Wanted Man feels like the necrotic real deal.