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The American

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Violante Placido and George Clooney in 'The American'

© Universal Pictures UK

Combining the European artistic sensibilities of director Anton Corbijn with the Hollywood star power of George Clooney is a curious combination on paper. Yet The American is an utterly mesmerising and heartbreaking thriller that is a strong contender for film of the year. Its minimal aesthetic and sparseness of dialogue might alienate passive cinemagoers used to being spoonfed plot information in between mouthfuls of overpriced popcorn, but for a thinking audience, it's glorious edge-of-the-seat magnificence.

Clooney plays some kind of hitman or weapons trader called Jack trying to hide out in a remote Italian town. Little is known about his identity, but he soon makes friends with the local priest and frequents the town's brothel on numerous occasions. As we discover in a beautifully shot snow-filled shootout at the start of the movie, romantic entanglements are very much a vocational hazard. Jack's enemies soon close in, with every shadow posing the threat of hidden menace and every acquaintance bearing the potential to be an agent of his adversaries. However, his attempts to lie low aren't compatible with his increasing feelings for a beautiful prostitute called Clara (the excellent Violante Placido). Is there anyone out there Jack can trust?

The lack of background information about Jack works wonders within the context of The American, enabling a palpable moral ambiguity to permeate proceedings. We're forced to question whether we should be rooting for the supposed 'hero' of the movie, admiring his resourcefulness yet never knowing where we stand with his actions.

A purposefully restrained and subdued turn by George Clooney compels the audience to scrutinise the recurrent close-ups for signs of emotion bursting through his rocky exterior. These do indeed start to emerge as the narrative escalates into murkier territory, making for a very gratifying performance indeed. Clooney should be commended for taking on such a tricky role, reminiscent of Alain Delon in Le Samourai, and utterly smashing it (as an X Factor judge might say).

In some respects, style is substance in The American. The way in which Corbijn depicts the story is as important as the plot itself. His intricate framing of each shot is not only visually luscious, but thematically relevant too, for Clooney frequently occupies the edge of the shot, further marginalising the isolated figure from the bleak world he lurks on the periphery of.

Corbijn honed his artistic skills over more than two decades of work with synth-rock legends Depeche Mode, with certain sequences echoing the bleak, solipsistic expressionism present in their videos for 'Behind The Wheel' and 'Enjoy The Silence'. One sequence of Jack driving alone at night in the subway, full of neon lights refracting off Clooney's austere face, provides one particular epiphany that says much through imagery and not words. Crucially, the Dutch director manages to perfectly fuse art with the conventions of the Hollywood thriller, as the suspense neatly builds towards breaking point throughout the movie. He also uses the archaic mountainside location of Castel Del Monte in superb fashion, with a Hitchcockian quality underlining his spatial awareness.

The combination of George Clooney and Anton Corbijn has provided a dazzling film that deserves widespread acclaim. It's a multi-layered production that harnesses Hollywood suspense with European aesthetics, expressionism with grit, and love with pain. Its subject matter hardly makes for an escapist, easygoing trip to the cinema, but it's a thoroughly rewarding journey that ends with a terrific jolt reminiscent of the similarly sublime The Scouting Book For Boys.


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