At times, it can feel as though television’s auteurs are making the movie industry irrelevant. Fifty years after phrases like “idiot box” and “vast wasteland” entered the American vocabulary, the long arc of a TV serial has officially proven itself a better vehicle for conveying psychological depth and sociological complexity than the 100-odd minutes available for the typical feature film. And from The Sopranos and The Wire to Breaking Bad and Mad Men, our small-screen storytellers have been exploiting this advantage to the hilt, turning out human dramas that put most of their cinematic competitors to shame.
So why go to the movies at all, when you can sit home with HBO and AMC, Netflix and iTunes, and experience the closest imitation of a great novel’s richness that visual culture can offer? Well, there’s spectacle, of course: that James Cameron rush, that Michael Bay high. But there’s also immersion: the sense of being surrounded and enveloped, sealed away completely from the real world, seeing only what the director intends for you to see. For all of television’s dramatic potential — and yes, for all the advances in flat-screen technology and surround sound as well — this is still something that rarely happens in your living room. It takes a movie theater, and it takes a movie maker.
Anton Corbijn, the Dutch-born director of The American, is such a man. A former photographer and music-video director (his debut film, Control, elegized the suicidal Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis), Corbijn’s first mainstream effort is a thriller in which very little happens, starring a movie star, George Clooney, who is never once allowed to bare his famous smile. This is a way of saying that The American is a very European film: It’s set in Sweden and Italy, features a great deal of nudity and characters with names like Pavel and Mathilde, and bathes the audience in a distinctively Continental mix of paranoia and ennui.
Clooney plays an aging hit man (he goes by “Jack” and sometimes “Edward”) who holes up in a Tuscan hill town after a snowbound shootout with unnamed Swedes, waiting for the coast to clear. His handler, the aforementioned Pavel (Johan Leysen, with a face like the Badlands), eventually gives him an assignment: He’s to build a gun for another assassin, a mysterious woman who needs a potent, quiet rifle for an undisclosed job. In between mechanical improvisations, Clooney’s character finds time to have pregnant conversations with a wise old priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and tender sex with a gorgeous prostitute played by Violante Placido. (If Placido looks familiar, it’s because her equally lovely mother played Michael Corleone’s doomed Italian bride in The Godfather.) And then he waits, and waits, for his enemies to find him, and for the film’s slowly built suspense to finally spend itself in violence.
#page#The American is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a perfect film. It’s pretentious and predictable, using narrative reticence (who is our hero? who are his enemies? who knows?) to disguise the slightness of its story. The lead role is a variation on the conflicted fixer Clooney played, to good effect, in Michael Clayton, but there his charisma was allowed freer rein, whereas here he looks too often like a repressed suburban father mourning a beloved pet. And if the plot sounds hackneyed, well, that’s because it is. The script is self-aware, at least, about the debt it owes to a hundred aging-gunslinger films before it: At one point, Clooney’s character wanders into a bar playing spaghetti Westerns on its television, and there on the screen, dubbed into Italian, is Clint Eastwood’s original Man With No Name. But its self-awareness doesn’t make it any less derivative. If you’ve seen those movies, then you know how this one goes. (Clooney’s character falls hard for the prostitute, decides that the current job will be his last, and so on down the checklist.)
But Corbijn knows what the movies are good for, and that knowledge covers a multitude of weaknesses. They’re good for conveying a mood, an atmosphere — twilit, existential, with occasional flashes of revelatory beauty. They’re good for intertwining dread with frustrated anticipation — for discovering the menace in an empty town square, the danger lurking in a flowered hillside, and then denying the audience the satisfaction of seeing that menace translated into actual violence. And they’re good for finally, finally giving the viewer that release, suddenly and almost ecstatically, in a choreographed burst of movement and gunfire, gunfire and movement, that makes all the waiting feel worthwhile.
Above all, they’re good for giving the world the big-screen close-up it deserves. This can mean the mazed streets of an Italian hill town, or the snowbound stillness of a Scandinavian lakeside. It can mean the interlocking gears of a high-powered rifle, the crags and jowls of old men, the life-changing smile of a beautiful woman. It can mean anything and everything that a skilled filmmaker wants his audience to see. And that skill can be enough, even in a film where the substance is unequal to the style, to remind us of why we go to the movies in the first place.