Film review – The American (2010)

10 November 2010
The American: Jack/Edward (George Clooney)

Jack/Edward (George Clooney)

In popular cinema the hit man, or assassin, is often a noble character when he is the protagonist (and it is usually a he) who may consort with shady organisations and murder people for a living, but he is mainly killing bad guys that nobody will miss. Such characters often end up putting their life and career on the line when they chooses to protect their target due to a crisis of conscience, recognising that the target is not a bad guy, falling in love with the target or all of the above. The American asserts very early on in a key moment that it is not going to be another romanticised version of the hit man narrative. In this film the elite assassin, who goes by the names Jack and Edward (George Clooney), is not a loveable killer but a chillingly deadly and detached professional with a machine-like precision in everything he does.

The American is the second film directed by Dutch-born music photographer Anton Corbijn, who originally made his name defining the look of seminal bands Joy Division, U2 and Depeche Mode through his photographs. Corbijn’s first film Control, a biopic about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis, displayed a distinctive European influence with the film feeling like something Swedish director Ingmar Bergman would have made if he were to have made an English kitchen-sink drama. In The American, which is primarily set in a small Italian village, the softly filtered light, slow burn pacing and meticulous staging of each scene evokes 1960s and 1970s European hit man/assassin classics such as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist.

The American: Jack/Edward (George Clooney)

The American is also comparable to Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, another recent hit man film with strong European sensibilities. The American is a far more narrative driven film but to an extent it shares with The Limits of Control a focus on the process, waiting and build-up rather than being a guns blazing action film. Both films also have a cool detached sensibility and in The American the frequent use of long shots and medium-long shots makes the characters feel somewhat lost in the environment they are occupying. However, The American contrasts this detachment with its subjective use of sound and editing where the film will cut to what Jack notices or emphasise a dramatic noise to give the audience a sense of the tense, suspicious and always on-guard view of the world that Jack experiences.

While films usually use subjective style to help the audience emphasis with the character by seeing the world through their eyes, in The American it is used to make the audience extremely concerned with how Jack will react to a situation involving a secondary character that we’ve come to care about. We know what Jack is capable of and how little humanity he possesses (although his obsession with butterflies suggests a repressed longing for some sort of emotional rebirth) so key moments in the film, such as when he is contemplating if murdering an innocent person is a good strategic move, are tense and unpredictable.

The American: Clara (Violante Placido)

Clara (Violante Placido)

George Clooney is not a stranger to dramatic acting but he is more commonly known for his charming, cheeky and sometimes goofy leading-man persona. Like Henry Fonda playing the villain in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, a pivotal scene of which we see being shown on television in The American, the against-type casting makes the character that little more chilling and untrustworthy since they are so far removed from how we normally regard them. And yet, Clooney still gradually endears Jack to us and makes us care about him despite what it is that he does. This also has a lot to do with Corbijn direction and the script (adapted from Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman), which allow enough hints of humanity to come through the surface of Jack’s icy exterior without the film ever feeling trite. In particular, Jack’s relationship with a priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), and a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), are beautifully developed and sincere.

The American is intelligent and well-crafted cinema that transcends its generic limitations through Corbijn’s command of film style. Corbijn’s background as a photographer has given him a mastery of how to frame and light every moment to tell a story visually in the most compelling way possible. With Control and now The American Corbijn has not only proven his success in making the transition into feature films but asserted himself as one of the most talented directors working today.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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MIFF 2009 reviews – 35 Shots of Rum (2008), The White Ribbon (2009), Shadow Play (2009)

6 August 2009

Reviews of film screening during the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival.

35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums, Claire Denis, 2008) ✭✭✭✭
The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band, Michael Haneke, 2009) ✭✭✭✩
Shadow Play: The Making of Anton Corbijn (Josh Whiteman, 2009) ✭✭✩

35 Shots of Rum

Joséphine (Mati Diop) and Lionel (Alex Descas)

Joséphine (Mati Diop) and Lionel (Alex Descas)

Claire Denis’s (Beau travail) portrait of the affectionate relationship between a father and daughter living in an apartment in the Paris suburbs is one of the highlights of the Melbourne International Film Festival this year. 35 Shots of Rum is a simple film that is part observational filmmaking, part gentle domestic drama and part cinéma vérité. While watching it you almost resist anything that feels like plot development because you are content to simply be in the company of these two characters and their friends, colleagues, neighbours and love interests. It is also refreshing to see a film that almost entirely contains actors of African descent as the representation of Paris’s large African community is rarely depicted in French cinema.

The White Ribbon

The latest film by the provocative Austrian director Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Caché, The Piano Teacher) is The White Ribbon, which won the Palme d’Or for best film at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Set in a small German village just before World War I, The White Ribbon is about a series of suspicious accidents and how the villagers respond to them. Among the villagers are various class, gender and generational conflicts that escalate when the Baron, the village’s main landowner and employer, discovers that his son has been kidnapped and tortured. Haneke’s films are notably very formal and intellectual works – dismissed by his detractors as overly didactic – and The White Ribbon is certainly another exercise in exploring the violence and brutality at the heart of society without ever allowing the audience any moments of catharsis or voyeuristic spectacle. However, it also contains a lot more humanity than some of Haneke’s previous films and there is even a romantic subplot. Nevertheless, this slow building film, in true Haneke form, becomes increasingly disturbing, especially as the true natures of many of the adult characters are revealed.

The White Ribbon at times feels like a diluted Haneke film and its sins-of-the-father theme feels a little tired. The authoritarian priest, who embodies classic Old Testament morality, is the type of obvious character you expect to see in the first film of a well meaning but inexperienced filmmaker, not in the film of somebody who has previous tackled far more complex representations of repression, guilt and social culpability. Having said that, there are some remarkable scenes and Haneke hasn’t lost his power to confront the audience with his skilful handling of dialogue and strategically knowing what to show and what not to show for maximum effect. Visually The White Ribbon is startlingly brilliant with some of the crispest black-and-white cinematography you are likely to ever see. Much of the film is shot in deep focus with no grain present on the screen whatsoever. The focus, exposure and contrast in the cinematography are the work of pure genius. The White Ribbon may be Haneke-light thematically but it is a great technical achievement.

Shadow Play: The Making of Anton Corbijn

This rather patchy documentary about rock-and-roll photographer and Control director Anton Corbijn, has plenty of interesting content but never gets beneath the surface of its subject. Perhaps Corbijn is simply just not that interesting as a person and his work should simply be allowed to speak for itself. Issues such as the nature of celebrity and how the relationship between photographers and the music industry has changed are touched upon but never satisfactorily explored, and too many promising anecdotes go nowhere. The filmmakers have also unwisely attempted to mimic Corbijn’s dark and gloomy photographic style by frequently filming Corbijn almost completely covered in shadows, and it doesn’t work. Nevertheless, Shadow Play does stand as a testament to how essential Corbijn was in defining the look of Joy Division and later U2 and Depeche Mode. Unfortunately the material in Shadow Play about the making-of Corbijn’s brilliant Ian Curtis biopic Control feels more like the type of video-diary footage that you are used to watching as a DVD extra.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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