There is a certain type of artsy film that spends long sections just kind of examining things, giving the audience lots of time to fill in those spaces with their own thoughts and reflections. The problem is, this is a very tricky thing to pull off, and if it doesn't work, you end up with a film full of large, empty spaces that only draw attention to how little is actually going on. Which brings us to The American.
This is a sort of art-inflected spy thriller directed by Anton Corbijn, photographer known for his rock star portraits and album covers. We open with George Clooney as Jack [we're never sure of his real name] snug in a cabin in snowy Sweden with some lovely lass. They're going for a walk across the frozen lake when they are targeted by an assassin. Jack's girlfriend in shocked when he whips out a gun, and dispatches the killer. He then tells her to run and call for help, then shoots her in the back of the head! Clooney's face convincingly shows us how torn up he is over this. And... well, that was the best sequence of the film, right there.
Jack shaves his beard [we knew it had to go], goes to Rome, and calls his boss. The Boss [I don't think we ever find out his name] gives him a car and directions to this small Italian town. The Boss implies that Jack was a fool for having a relationship at all, and advises him "Don't make any friends." Jack goes to the recommended town, surveys the place and finds it suspicious, so he tosses the cell phone the Boss gave him and moves to the small town next door.
There he encounters a nosy priest with whom he will form a sort of attachment and have many thematically-related discussions about sin and redemption. His boss arranges a job for him, and he meets the attractive female client it's for. She wants a specialty weapon for assassination. George finds the parts and makes it. Meanwhile he has been sleeping with a particular prostitute, Clara, and starts dating her outside the brothel. When the Swedes try to kill him, Jack realizes that someone is blabbing about his whereabouts.
Meanwhile, we have noticed that there are a great deal of shots from behind Jack's head, showing us what he sees and inviting us to share his head space. Unfortunately there's not too much going on there that is clear to us. There's a thematically-relevant discussion as Jack spies an endangered butterfly [endangered--like himself!] and we realize that he knows all about butterflies--a simple, fragile, beautiful thing in this cruel world--and he just happens to have a stylized butterfly tattooed on his back, causing the ladies in his life to refer to him as "Mister Butterfly."
The movie picks up the pace in the last few minutes, and ends in a fairly satisfying way, although one that will be quite familiar to anyone who has ever seen a crime or gangster movie before. And then you turn to your friend and say “That was pretty good.” And then you go home and think about it. And that’s where the trouble starts.
Because ultimately there just isn’t much going on in its pretty little head. I think this was quite intentional on Corbijn’s part, and while it’s nice that he wanted to create a fairly stately and meditative thriller, there has to be something there to meditate on [and please do not suggest we meditate on the tattered and tired sin and redemption discussions, thanks so much]. There’s a rich tradition of films that leave viewers a lot of space to think about what’s going on—I think the most clear-cut example is how the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner removed all the voice-over and opened up all that space for the viewer to think about the ideas going on. Another current movie that does this is Never Let Me Go. The difference is, those movies have a lot of ideas and concepts happening, which one can reflect on during the slower parts, and start to invest the images and otherwise “blank” spaces with meaning. I would guess that Corbijn WANTS that here—that he intends all the slow sections to be filled in with our thoughts and reflections. But there’s just not enough going on, and what IS going on is all quite familiar from other films. And, based on Corbijn’s background as a photographer, one then begins to make all sorts of unflattering inferences about what he might THINK is deep and how he might THINK these images are quite evocative…
But again, it’s perfectly pleasant as it’s going on, which has its value. And I don’t ask Resident Evil: Afterlife to linger in my consciousness and enlighten me… although I believe this movie aspires to be better regarded. And there are worse things to look at than George Clooney and beautiful women and charming Italian villages. But look at them while you can, because that’s about all this movie has in its bag of tricks.
It’s pleasant, just a bit emptier than one would wish.