The Wages of Sin
Anton Corbijn Makes the Best Thriller of the Year
By Cole Smithey
Anton Corbijn was destined to compose a great second film. The Dutch photographer-turned-director who made a splash in 2007 with his terrific Ian Curtis biopic "Control," has crafted a sexy and taught European thriller about an assassin on one last mission in the remote Abruzzo region of Italy.
Based on Martin Booth's novel "A Very Private Gentleman," George Clooney is Jack, an aging hit man on the run from a group of dangerous Swedes who want to kill him. On the brink of retiring, Jack accepts one last assignment to supply an exceptionally skilled woman assassin named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) with a rifle he will build to her exact specifications. Clooney plays his character of walking contradictions with an alternating intensity and sensitivity that registers on screen with an intricacy that is a delight to savor. Clooney's mercurial performance represents his finest work to date in an already refined career.
Anton Corbijn's intuitive sense of scale and composition create an unforgettable regard for a unique region of Italian culture where, in this case, earthy romance and unseen dangers collide. His emphasis on silence over sound gives the film a refreshing sense of time and space. During a year when Scorsese and Polanski have each delivered incredibly lush thrillers, it says a lot that "The American" surpasses them both on a compositional level. "The American" is a perfect thriller.
One of the film's more enjoyable aspects is its vibrant female characters. That one is an heir apparent to Jack's job, and the other, Carla (Violente Placido), a prostitute with a disarming charm, sets up a confusing synergy for Jack to contend with on emotional and intellectual levels.
We know from the film's stylish and disquieting opening sequence in snow-covered Sweden that Jack is not to be trusted for his romantic integrity. Jack has to remind himself, or be reminded, not to "make friends" as he travels to Italy. However, years of living in a mechanical routine of traveling around the world to kill for money and use women as sexual utensils has made him vulnerable. He's not quite burned out, but he's right on the brink.
In an especially absorbing scene, Jack meets Mathilde for the first time and takes her to a secluded wooded area with tall reeds for her to test out the rifle he has painstakingly built for her particular assignment. Jack is visibly taken aback by her depth of gun knowledge. He instinctively sets his stopwatch to time her as she assembles the rifle with blinding speed. Mathilde's polished skill and methodical execution, makes him nervous as he notes her every move. Mathilde has brought her own target, which she casually places 30-meters away with a come-hither walk that dares him to shoot her. Corbijn captures Mathilde's posterior anatomy as she walks away from Jack for its distracting quality. Sex is clearly on Jack's mind and in his pants.
During a nocturnal visit with Clara, Jack tells her, "I'm here to get pleasure, not give it." The statement is an obvious lie under their particular sexual circumstances. It's a fib similar to one he tells Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), the priest that he befriends when he categorically states that he's "not good with machines." The lies Jack imparts are well-rehearsed defense mechanisms he uses to keep others in the dark about his true persona. Some untruths, like the one he tells Clara, he even believes himself. Through Jack's budding relationship with Clara, and his arguably more intimate rapport with Mathilde (via the rifle that will sew their fate) the film becomes rapidly concrete after spending a seemingly long time in flux.
George Clooney orchestrates an effortlessly subtle portrayal that transforms in micro measures. His face registers every detail of carefully poised foreshadowing that Anton Corbijn supports with camera work that is nothing short of virtuosic. If you had asked me last week who was the best American actor working today, I might have answered Leonardo DiCaprio or Sean Penn. But after seeing "The American," I'm convinced it's George Clooney.
However clichéd you might imagine the hit man premise for "The American" to be, know that not only does it contain two of the most intriguing female characters to come along in a dog's life, but it is one of the most sophisticated thrillers you will ever see.
Rated R. 105 mins. (A+) (Five Stars)
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