Having tried something professionally, succeeded in my ambitions and yet still somehow fallen short, I can empathize with Anton Corbijn. His new film, The American, feels like exactly the movie he wanted to make, and it also feels like the movie his investors and collaborators knew they were making. But it doesn't feel like the movie they thought they would get from doing exactly what they wanted, which is why audiences will probably feel like it's not the movie they want to see. Corbijn, who previously directed the elegant, tragic Ian Curtis biopic, has crafted an equally elegant film for his follow-up, but its only genuine tragedy is that it doesn't feel more, well, tragic, leaving The American relegated to the status of noble failure even as it delivers an otherwise pretty (and pretty familiar) thriller about an aging hitman.
George Clooney plays Jack, an assassin who departs for parts unknown after his Icelandic hideout is attacked by revenge-seeking Swedes. Arriving in the Italian countryside at the behest of his boss Pavel (Johan Leysen), he strikes up an unexpected friendship with a local priest (Paolo Bonacetti) before being recruited for a new job: build a weapon for another assassin named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). He agrees to deliver the weapon, but soon realizes that even its considerable payday may not be enough to help him escape his shadowy past, especially after he meets a young prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido) whose companionship makes him begin to long for a more normal life.
Clooney may have taken on the lead role in The American in order to exercise a different skill set than his decidedly more glib turns in stuff like the Ocean's films, but his reserved, monklike focus in this film unfortunately eradicates not only the charm of those efforts, but even the intensity that made his other performances in films such as Syriana and Michael Clayton so effective. He isn't bad in the film as much as he is virtually somnambulant: the simmering reserve seldom registers as inner turmoil as often as it's meant to, and the dearth of dialogue - even as an admirable, Steve McQueen-esque choice - offers little insight into what might be driving him underneath all of that cool, indefatigable professionalism.
Mind you, it's not the ambiguity of his background, intentions or desires that's a problem; indeed, most movies are entirely too explicit in their motivations and meanings. But Clooney's character seems to have only work because that's all that's been provided for him as an actor, and as a result the character seems to hide little deeper pain than persistent loneliness, and one supposes the ongoing prospect of being shot at.
Meanwhile, Corbijn constructs some marvelously beautiful shots and creates a tone for the film that bypasses the frenetic energy of folks like Paul Greengrass or even the supercool style of Soderbergh's Ocean's trilogy. He applies the same discipline and focus to the cinematography and set design that Clooney does to his character. But the visual signifiers only function aesthetically, or as fairly obvious indicators of mood or character detail (such as shooting Clooney from behind, or in shallow focus in order to isolate him from his environment). It's a gorgeous film, but its restraint (or perhaps more accurately, "measured style") offers clarity without suspense, prodding the story forward without building meaningful tension for its main character.
That said, Corbijn shoots the "action" cleanly and depicts it realistically; the reason I use quotes is less because the set pieces are ineffective than they are deliberately portrayed without glamour or spectacle. Such an approach is admirable, but that's all it is, and it offers little to rouse the film out of its methodical rhythm. That Clooney also impresses the physical and emotional dimensions of age in these scenes makes them seem authentic, but again, I can't remember the last time that audiences thought a requisite quality for good shootouts was verisimilitude.
Again, however, it feels like Corbijn and Clooney accomplished what they set out to do, which was make a character study, and a grown-up, restrained thriller that eschewed all of the flash of typical hit man action flicks. It's like a museum, where everything is very beautiful, and very cold, but you're not allowed to touch anything, least of all the main character's heart, even though that's the engine that supposedly propels this story to its conclusion. But ultimately, if hit man movies have been more or less fully defined cinematically and are now completely dependent on execution, The American succeeds in rendering its fully conventional story in new visual dimensions. But the only way Corbijn's film ultimately makes an impact is by translating the dispassionate restraint of its style directly onto the audience - meaning that no matter how pretty it looks, it provides little reason to care about what happens while you're looking at it.