From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key, Santiago Ramos reviews The American:
Gun, Girl, God
By Santiago Ramos
DIR Anton Corbijn
SCR Rowan Joffe, from a novel by Martin Booth
Starring George Clooney, Irina Björklund, Paolo Bonacelli, Violante Placido
Minimalism, as a stylistic choice, doesn’t minimize the moral ambiguities within a story. It merely makes it easier for us to recognize the story’s most important ambiguity. In the case of the new spy movie, The American—which is minimalistically constructed around close-up shots of George Clooney’s gloomy visage, as well as a bare-bones plot—the central ambiguity has to do with one question: Am I fighting for the right side?
The answer wavers between, “No” and “We can’t know,” and saying that gives nothing of the plot away. We start with two sides, but the bad guys are…Swedes. Yes, Swedes. The logical dissonance which that inspires is by itself almost enough to establish the central moral ambiguity of the plot. (“How can Swedes be bad?”) But even so, the Swedes are relatively unimportant. Clooney’s character, the alienated, very quiet secret agent “Jack,” will eventually find out that his true enemy is one, negative force: the force which keeps him from living and from loving. How to do the latter he discovers when he meets a sensitive and clever prostitute, Clara, played by the beautiful Italian actress Violante Placido.
I don’t know whether director Anton Corbijn had in mind Jean-Luc Godard’s famous dictum, that “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” But he has proved it. The central dilemma for Jack is that he has been asked by his superiors to collect parts for, and assemble, a sniper rifle to be used in an assassination plot about which he apparently knows very little, and we know nothing at all (“I suppose I will hear about it in the Herald,” he says, with slight disgust—the Herald in this scene playing the same semiotic role as the Swedes: a signifier without conspicuous connotations). He has also been asked to relocate to Castelvecchio, a town in the Abbruzzo region of south central Italy, where he meets Clara.
Clara is a splash of water on hard clay. Softening Jack up, she begins to mold him into something closely related to a human being. The more human that Jack becomes, the more he becomes aware of the central ambiguity at the center of his life—and of the film. Yet he still has to build that rifle. Clara, meanwhile, remains lustily by his side: her naked bosom always returns, as if with the tides, like the gentle lapping of a wave along the shoreline. Two times too often, in fact, because at some point what is gentle becomes jarring, and then annoying, in a movie that wants to be a film.
But not as jarring as Corbijn’s use of spy flick conventions. In a movie that tries to pare everything down to bare essentials, the question must be asked: are these conventions essential? If they are, could they be used in a more interesting way than simply…using them? Example one: It is midnight, and on a long, dimly-lit, winding, narrow street, we hear footsteps—the Swede is coming! Example two: Morning, Jack stretches across his bed to snoop through Clara’s purse, while she is in the shower. I last saw that in The Good Shepherd. Perhaps it is unfair to criticize a spy flick for using spy flick conventions. But it seems perhaps contradictory that a movie which is so confident in its own profundity would depend so much on sensation and on prefabricated scenes.
But neither of these faults successfully distract from the profundities that the movie tries to express. The American is an argument in favor of adding a third g to Godard’s recipe: gun, girl, and a god, of some sort. All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl, but also a god who has a high enough probability of actually existing that he gives everything a slight feeling of ultimate significance. The role of god-spokesman and prophet is played quite well by Paolo Bonacelli, whose character, Father Benedetto, is the first local to take interest in the wandering American “tourist.” Very quickly, he sees through Jack’s alibi of being a magazine photographer, though the script is written with elegant subtlety on this point: Jack never makes an explicit confession to the priest. The priest can see all of his sins, and eventually, Jack learns about the priest’s own turbid past, but they both speak indirectly to each other, shielding their shame and hurt.
It’s hard to know, then, what to make of The American. I feel equal parts emotionally manipulated and intellectually provoked. The movie’s operatic climax hinges on a concrete decision that Jack has to make. Yet I almost forgot my seriousness in the scenes leading up to it. Regardless, Anton Corbijn is a deft stylist, and I will certainly be watching his next (which would be only his third) feature film.
Santiago Ramos has written for First Things, Commonweal, Image Journal, Traces, and the Kansas City weekly, The Pitch. He is currently pursuing graduate studies in Boston College.