Anton Corbijn’s career has mostly consisted of photography and music video direction, so presumably he’s jumped across the extremes of how to speak the language of images without music and, in some sense, depending on it quite heavily. Not that The American doesn’t have an interesting musical soundtrack, but it is used minimally, along with dialogue and narrative, to the priority of images and silence. The influence of Antonioni and Kubrick is alive here, a refreshing fact for a film marketed as an action movie but actually a kind of anti-Bourne film. Matt Damon’s character is much more adept than Clooney’s, although both fundamentally want to settle down in a monogamous relationship far away from their darker careers and abandon their murderous training. Instead of migraine-inducing cross-cutting from Paul Greengrass in the second and third installments of the Bourne trilogy, Corbijn allows the camera to linger for lengthy periods, giving the viewer the opportunity to experience the multi-faceted geometry of the frame. Since the width and depth of the shots are what give them their unique meaning, the audience is asked to flex their genre expectations if they want to “get” this film.
It should be said that both techniques – that of the Bourne movies and The American – are perfectly appropriate to the respective grammars that the films are using and the different correlations to the characters and stories. In the Bourne films, camera work often corresponds with the mental state of Jason Bourne and his accompanying headaches. The challenge to the viewer is, sort of, to keep up with him. In The American, Clooney’s character Jack is on a different wavelength. His career is winding down, but not necessarily by choice (although in part, yes). He’s distracted, his mind is elsewhere, he’s less pragmatic than Bourne and more pensive. The nature of his thoughts is rarely verbalized, except in images. When he does speak, he contradicts himself and proves himself a liar. “I’m not good with machines,” he says more than once, only then to demonstrate to the audience and even the other filmic characters his high level of competence with firearms and ammunition. “I came here to get pleasure, not to give it,” he tells a prostitute, but only after doing quite the opposite (with an unflinching, lingering camera the whole way through).
The photographic nature of this film’s discourse usurps Corbijn’s other attempt: the use of the symbolic. This is dangerous territory for a filmmaker, and Corbijn’s rather hesitant insertion of symbolic elements, which are themselves very overt, makes the film either ambiguous or too much the opposite. The butterfly has long been an obvious symbol of regeneration, new life, resurrection, etc. The application of this symbol to Jack may simply be paradoxical, or allude to the ultimate meaninglessness of life and death; but it may distract from the main images the way endnotes distract from the main text of a book. The butterfly is tattooed on him, and real butterflies start making appearances as the film moves forward. It’s a nearly extinct species, of course, a fact to which Jack has access by virtue of his interest in the natural world despite his profession.
For having a grammar that’s something like Antonioni’s, and even some corresponding ennui, Corbijn thinks more of eros than the great Italian director. Life is meaningless and unpredictable, but if anything is worth shooting for, it’s something very traditional, erotically speaking. Whereas Antonioni believed that eros was sick and in need of a cure, Corbijn seems to suggest that it is the cure, albeit an elusive one. This is strangely ironic, since the film’s first (or second?) shot is highly evocative of the final shot of L’Avventura: from behind, a woman caressing the head of her beloved during a moment of intimate silence, peering at an intangible beauty in front of them and divided through their own posturally and sartorially.
A postscript: the priest in this film is one of the most suggestive diegetic figures. First, the casting is quite interesting. Paolo Bonacelli has been a pretty prolific Italian actor since the 60s, but his most famous roles include characters in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló and Caligula, two of the most infamously depraved films ever produced. As a European, Corbijn is fully aware of this, and so Bonacelli’s casting as a clerical figure is immediately dubious. Second, the questionable nature of the casting is confirmed within the film when the priest turns out to have an immoral background of his own. Shortly after meeting Jack, Father Benedetto interrogates him on the history of Abruzzo, where Jack claims he is taking landscape and architecture photographs. When Jack comes up with no knowledge of the area, Father Benedetto chastises him, equating his ignorance of history with being a typical American. Toward the film’s denouement, Jack realizes that the priest has a secret illegitimate child. When Jack confronts him on the matter, the priest says it was a long time ago and he can’t remember much about it. So the priest is as guilty as Jack of neglecting history and relying on his own constructed self of the present. The fact that it is a priest whose hypocrisy is exposed, parallel with a hit man, seems to conflate the two poles of morality and history into a double failure of narcissistic, nihilistic amnesiacs.