by Richard von Busack
THE SLOW-COOKED existential spy movie The American breaks no new philosophical ground. Still, it has the true resonance of the spy movie: that summing up of men’s alienation, fear of betrayal, and terror of entanglement. The Dutch director Anton Corbijn, best known for music videos, directs in a classic, neo-’60s style that has nothing of MTV in it. Photographer Martin Ruhe (who shot Corbijn’s biopic Control as well as Harry Brown) soaks this film in much of the orange and blues that can be seen everywhere onscreen in an era of digital tweaking. But the film’s nocturnes are a bit more heightened, almost to Mario Bava level: at night, the stony labyrinths of the streets glow in shades of lunar green and polished copper.
Much of The American is an act of following: Corbijn keeps the most interesting male movie star in the world in his sights. George Clooney plays a character called “Jack,” among other names. In the pre-titles, killers run him out of a snowy haven in Sweden, and he flees to Italy. Apparently, the only man who knows his whereabouts is his employer, who warns him to make no friends in his new village. Despite himself, it happens: Jack meets an elegant hooker, Clara (Violante Placido), and starts sharing drinks with a rumbling local priest (Paolo Bonicelli). This man and this woman, reaching out to body and soul, compromise Jack’s perimeter. And then Jack is recruited for a new job: the construction of a sniper rifle for a striking female assassin (Thekla Reuten from In Bruges).
Martin Booth’s source novel, A Very Private Gentleman, is literary, florid and sardonic. The Browning you think of when you read it is the poet, not the rifle; the middle-aged British gentleman of the book is, he tells us, “not a James Bond.” Which is immaterial as well as disingenuous. Even those who really know James Bond’s lore have no idea who James Bond is. Take away the outline made by 007’s famous possessions, female companions and wardrobe, and there’s a sizable existential blank that any artist could fill.
Booth, who was a poet more than a plotter, is most fascinated with the case of a man trying to cut off all ties to the world, social and moral. The Italian hilltop town in Abruzzo described in humid and roasting summer by Booth, appears onscreen far in the clouds, looking chilly, inaccessible and more like Tibet than Tuscany. It is compelling to watch Clooney pacing these ancient stones in fascinating solitude, quivering with alertness.
The American, however, is not at all the thriller a lot of people will expect. Ultimately, because of its sexual content and its meditative strength—not to mention the large part of an audience that can never take even a somber spy movie seriously—it may be Americans who have the most trouble with it.