For a man with a fair claim on being the handsomest star in Hollywood, George Clooney takes a lot of risks.
He may carry a face that has stormed opening weekends and launched blockbuster franchises, but the actor has consistently sought out dark, smart and unusual roles in the likes of Solaris, Syriana, Michael Clayton and, now, The American.
This cold European western is perhaps his biggest departure from the mainstream yet. Directed by Control Helmer and longtime photographer Anton Corbijn, The American is a striking, intimate study of a dangerous, private man.
Clooney’s icy Jack is a professional – possibly an assassin, certainly a gunsmith – wanted dead, we assume, thanks to a previous job, and now lying low in a remote Italian village.
As Corbijn points out in his relaxed commentary track, the film is structured like a classic western: a stranger enters town, with trouble following behind.
The director even proudly recounts that the looming mountains of Abruzzo were also used by Sergio Leone in his frontier-mimicking spaghettis. Here they’re the backdrop to the intense focus on Jack.
The film principally consists of a lean, neatly clipped Clooney (an embodiment of discipline and precision) meticulously crafting a custom weapon for a client, staring out of the window, and, in a heavy-handed bit of symbolism, forming relationships with the village priest and hooker.
Spirit and body, God and lust – but the film gets away with such broad strokes because the minimalist storytelling lends it the air of a parable.
and because, in different ways, the performances of Violanta Placido as the girl (alive and hopeful) and Paolo Bonacelli as the man of God (warm but weary) help shine a light on Clooney’s character.
The camera loves Clooney here as much as when he’s breaking hearts and plotting heists, only instead of smirks he offers quiet concentration and rigid movement (although the throwaway ‘making of’ shows the typically irrepressible actor mugging and joking right up to the moment action is called on set).
Basically, it’s an artsy portrait of isolation and dedication, a nod to the cinema of ’70s new Hollywood which Clooney and longtime collaborator Steven Soderbergh have praised loud and long.
It’s beautifully composed and photographed, and Clooney delivers a measured, magnetic performance that engages rather than thrills. It might not be one of his best, but it’s certainly one of his most interesting.
A quietly gorgeous and well performed film made stronger by the presence of a conversational commentary from Corbijn.