"Boring is not a critical argument. Slow is not an inherently negative trait." These were two of the touchstone quotes in Harry Tuttle's extended defense of contemplative cinema at his blog Unspoken Cinema this summer. I was hoping I wouldn't have to go reaching for these again anytime soon, but here I am using them as ammunition for Anton's Corbijn's The American. Who would have thought they would come attached to a wide-release film starring George Clooney, directed by a pioneer of frenetic and imaginative music videos, and fastened to a marketing scheme that mislead opening weekend moviegoers into expecting some rehash of the Bourne franchise? Suffice to say, the film with the friendly title has procured a massive ambivalence from national audiences, with responses ranging from unwarranted outrage at the film's supposedly "slow" pacing and simple bafflement, the notion of being struck like a deer in the headlights with little to say. A primer for some of the anti-intellectual banter the film has inspired:
- "Those who believe they’d be happy watching George Clooney do nothing for two hours can now test that theory...Like a soccer game that ends in a 0-0 tie, the silence is eventually snooze-inducing no matter how many different ways Clooney manages to look pained in his self-inflicted isolation."
- "The slow pace gives The American a very European feel to it, but, more often than not, you’ll find yourself bored and wish that at least some kind interesting event will occur or that the pace would pick up a little more---a lengthy sex scene with Jack and Carla, for instance, could have easily been trimmed down. Also, with the exception of a few lines of dialogue from the priest, there’s not enough comic relief to enliven the film."
- "George Clooney produced and stars in this international spy thriller, which he probably thought of as existential but which registers onscreen as a giant bore."
(*I should also point out that two of the three reviews raised the threatening possibility that you might have to check your watch a few times.)
Now I don't particularly find The American to be a masterpiece of its kind or anything, but I do think it's an enormously effective, thought-provoking character study told with an ease of touch and a blistering intelligence that would likely be missing from the type of movie these critics were likely expecting. This is the kind of faux-journalism that strangles worthwhile cultural items, that stresses the pressures of conformity and ultimately contributes to the continuing production of boring, streamlined garbage. Here is a film that deliberately refuses to engage with the standardized techniques of a modern day thriller or action movie, that decidedly has no room for conscious "comic relief", that doesn't desire to obey the rules for how long a sex scene should be shown because it is after a different effect, and for this it is graded on a false curve. It's not a sin for a film involving guns, hitmen (and hitwomen), and international intrigue to adopt the pace of real life, nor is it fundamentally wrong for the suspense and thrills to exist separated from the ostensible action scenes, instead resting squarely in the confines of Mr. Clooney's skull. It's just a different route the film chooses to take.
Not that it should have been entirely unexpected from Anton Corbijn either, the guy who helmed a gritty, throwback tribute to pained Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in 2007 (Control) and regularly shot videos for Depeche Mode, U2, and Echo and the Bunnymen. Consistently, a somber grace exudes from Corbijn. Even within his endless catalog of arresting photographs of rock icons, there is a pensiveness, a general stillness of mind, that foreshadows Clooney's displaced gun-wielder Jack in The American. After its quietly menacing opening scene, in which danger and violence penetrate him and his lady friend unexpectedly in the midst of a peaceful stroll through a snowy field, the film floats in a kind of purgatorial state as Jack negotiates in a quaint Italian village the hole he has dug himself into from a life of secrecy and disturbance. Bearing in mind the fatalistic undertow of the film (one of the telling indicators being Jack's insistence that he's doing "his one last job"; sounds like Fantastic Mr. Fox, huh?), I don't think it's necessarily much of a spoiler to confess that Jack reaches his end at the film's end, and we sense this occurrence early on, right from when he navigates a long black tunnel in his car in the credit sequence, as if gradually approaching death. But the film's rewards are not strictly in the denouement (though the final scene is quite poignant and poetic in its own right); the substance is found in Jack's muted introspection, his subtly accumulating sense of paranoia, and his tensely staged walks through the nighttime alleyways of this European no-man's land.
He's in Italy to meet a Belgian woman named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) who will propose a special silenced rifle for Jack to build, her mission's purpose unbeknownst to Jack. It is not, however, this slight mystery that compels the film's plodding, insistent apprehension, but rather Jack's uncertainty as to whether she - or anyone he's dealing with for that matter - is actually earnest. Corbijn expertly poses this ambiguous conflict in a long, sunny scene in the woods when they first meet. The scene has a calm, tranquil air to it, emphasized by Reuten and Clooney's composed performances. Mathilde is assured in her interaction, gradually building, as all sexy assassins do, towards an erotic seduction of Jack, but he has almost equally firm footing, teasing her by revealing a wine bottle when she lies down on a blanket only to swiftly pour it all out. Moments before, to test the effectiveness of the gun's location-obscuring silencer, Mathilde asks Jack to shoot a few feet to the right of her, twice. Instantly, Jack's existential dilemma is strikingly posed: to instinctively shoot away his problem when it stands right in front of him could be to relinquish his deficits right then and there, but it's more likely a broadening of his own rabbit hole of violence, both a literal augmenting of enemies and a metaphorical reminder of the kind of man he wants to escape from, the man who murdered said lady friend at the end of the opening scene out of fear that she might leak information about his identity. The tension is nailed down again in a scene late in the film when Jack reunites with Mathilde to deliver the weapon in a vacant, brightly lit diner. When she leaves temporarily to grab something, the fact that the blinds in the room are down only serves to increase Jack's notion that she is up to no good.
Jack wants to be able to trust again, to love again, but it's his stone-cold anxiety and professionalism that prevents him from doing so. He has been conditioned to believe that no one in an unknown land is on his side, and that's precisely why the moments when he's alone, which take up the bulk of the film, are so intimidating. The film utilizes sound to great effect in these sequences, alternating long stretches of spacious diegetic noise with an elegiac piano number and a nearly imperceptible low-frequency drone. Corbijn shoots claustrophobic tracking shots from behind Jack's head, obscuring what's behind him, or narrow point-of-view shots, funneling his vision into some nook in a tight alleyway. There's always a sense that something or someone is suspiciously outside the frame, and the film's visual finesse in this regard, which ably conjures the same mental state as Jack, is admirable. When the film finally picks up its central romance, its narrative selling point, Jack's paranoia is so firmly calculated that it feels doomed from the outset. She's a hooker named Clara, and to some extent she's as flawed and persistent as Jack, but she lacks his pessimism and nervousness. She's comfortable in her own skin and in her surroundings. Because Corbijn allows their first full sex scene to be completely and intimately portrayed, and because Clooney's excellent performance conveys glimpses of emotional truth beneath the severity of his exterior (unexpected enthusiasm in the act, small physical gestures, hints in his post-sex dialogue), their romance is convincing and genuine. But he muffs the opportunity by suspecting her as a spy, ultimately correcting himself when it's too late.
It's true that The American utilizes as superficial checkmarks the narrative cliches of the hitman or spy genre (a mysterious protagonist doing his final job and wanting to run away with his beloved, a beautiful femme fatale with chameleonic hair), but its homage-like tendencies are coupled with a sincere inclination to give the characters who normally inhabit these hackneyed structures some room to breathe. It's amazing how confidently the film spotlights Clooney, who is really pitting himself against the "star" persona, minimizing his performance to a succession of subdued mutations in his eyes, mouth, and cheekbones. His work is quite extraordinary. So while Corbijn's well-intentioned, under-the-rader tributes to the European contemplative thrillers of this sort like Melville's Le Samourai and Antonioni's The Passenger are sometimes thin and fraudulent (the frightening unfamiliarity of the location, repetitious uses of landscape shots that dwarf Jack as he drives through, concentration on the mundane rather than the spectacular), his investment in the psychological predicaments of his characters is distinct. He takes the expected strategy (a frenzied, action-packed thriller set in exotic terrain) and subverts it, revealing the fundamental disconnect between what hyper audiences want and what they've been disregarding for so long: penetrating psychological examination.
Getting back to claims of slowness, The American doesn't feel so much slow as it does lifelike, humbly interested in sustaining a level of verisimilitude. Aside from the patience and completeness with which actions are carried out, it's actually taut and unrelenting from scene to scene, never pausing too long to dilute the apprehension. And this belies the fact that much of the apprehension stems directly from the mundane, from the thick slabs of routine and process that comprise the film. The content of Jack's life has been reduced to the assembling of guns, the occasional business meeting, and the obligatory covering of his own back. He's lived this way so naturally and for so long that he cannot fashion a successful comeback, and in this way the film denounces the militaristic nature of the world, arguing that it squanders the possibility for love and tenderness. Thus his final, almost surreal vision of Clara waiting for him in the woods - an image that is the culmination of a gripping sprawl towards death - is as heart-wrenching as it is a kind of morbid told-you-so moment. It's a real shame that The American has been given such flak, because while it reduces a solid achievement to a caricature, it also suggests an audience that fetishizes the kind of gratuitously violent and demoralizing films it implicitly condemns.