The second film by Anton Corbijn is a by-the-numbers thriller in terms of plotting and characterization. His first film “Control”, about the life and death of the rock band Joy Division, was an excellent independent-styled expose. An assured debut that won the Directors Fortnight at Cannes in 2007. “Control” is the better film of the two in almost every way. With “The American” it seems that Corbijn has moved into the big time while being co-opted by the Hollywood machine in the process. One hopes he can still find his way with more idiosyncratic and personal projects rather than George Clooney star vehicles.
“The American” is the story of Clooney as a lonely hitman named “Mr. Butterfly” for the insect tattoo he sports on his back. He tromps through scenic Europe working high-priced jobs for a suave and mysterious fixer, falls in love with a good-hearted Italian hooker named Clara (Violante Placido) and befriends an old priest who offers sage advice — all while trying to do the proverbial “one last job”. Every element of this film’s construction is a cliche of the killer-for-hire genre or a rather unimaginative homage, as when we see short sequences of Clooney in his hideout working his body into shape which recall Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” by way of Lerner’s “Murder by Contract”.
Of course he gives his last packet of ill-gotten money to Clara in the hopes that she will escape to another life with him and of course he is shot before he can make it to that next life, just as of course he maintains enough energy to drive while bleeding, reaching Clara for one more look at her before he slumps over dead in the driver’s seat. The final shot of a butterfly slowly floating up and away from his car as the camera tilts with it is a bit too hokey to be worthy of a film that until this point had avoided inane symbolism. However, all this is not to say that “The American” is a particularly bad film.
It’s quite good, despite one knowing every turn around the corner before it comes. Corbijn is effective at creating a languorous mood that hangs over the film like an afternoon dream. Clooney doesn’t seem right as a brooding hitman but he still delivers an understated performance that carries the entire movie. When you play by the rules of the genre you often get a rigorous piece that delivers what it and hundreds of others before it promise. Though as the saying goes, nothing ventured nothing gained. This film will ultimately fade into oblivion. Whether Mr. Corbijn does or not is still yet to be decided and entirely up to him.