The American is what The Limits of Control wanted to be, and that’s coming from a Jim Jarmusch fan. Where Jarmusch’s film was exceptionally beautiful, well-acted, and thoroughly hollow, Anton Corbijn’s follow-up to his excellent Control is exceptionally beautiful, well-acted, and thoroughly rewarding.
George Clooney, in one of his more interesting roles, plays Jack, an assassin at the end of his rope, who relocates/flees to a small town in Italy as he attempts to fulfill a final assignment. Hunted by unknown enemies, Jack (using the pseudonym Edward), quickly falls in love with the beautiful prostitute Clara (Violante Placido), but his past threatens to tear them apart.
The “assassin hoping to retire” isn’t necessarily a new tact, but when combined with Corbijn’s eye and affinity for careful pacing, it becomes something fresh. Corbijn’s aesthetic is rather slow and sparse. He uses frequent wide establishing shots, favoring a lowered horizon line.
The strategy here goes alongside the pervasive use of negative space in the film: overwhelm the characters with surroundings and unfamiliarity.
Otherwise, Corbijn’s coverage consists of a fairly stationary camera, with small push-ins. There are many moments of shot-reverse-shot conversations, where both sides of the dialogue feature a slowly creeping in camera: Jack and Clara talking in the car; Jack and his female assassin partner speaking outside in a cafe.
Even the violent moments – and there are at least three in the film – are shot in a slow-burn manner, utilizing the power of the in-camera reveal (ie, character turns to reveal another character behind him) as the moment of surprise, rather than classic “jump outs” or the now omnipresent handheld.
In the end though, Corbijn’s style here is to keep as at an arm’s length distance from Jack. He’s a dangerous man. We get that at the outset of the film. But he’s also complex and compassionate. Aside from simple distancing shots, as mentioned above, the director uses some technique that is slightly counter to its traditional usage.
Consider a scene where Jack sits in a cafe, aware of the car outside containing a man on his trail. Jack enters in a wide-shot:
The shot above is revealed to be a point-of-view, when we cut to the next shot, which keeps Jack in the foreground out of focus, and the car – his tail – in focus behind him:
In a very detached medium-wide, Jack looks out the window. That negative space is eventually filled by the shopkeeper, who delivers a letter:
Corbijn cuts to a new angle, pushing the car for the moment as an afterthought (smaller in frame, out of focus), and bringing the emphasis to the action at hand. This is all very traditional, though nicely laid out thus far:
In a slight variation on shot 2, we cut into a close-up of Jack. He is now sharp, and the car behind him is soft:
Corbijn uses a close-up of the letter as a bridge to not show us the change in focus that happens between the shot above, and that two below. The shot two below returns to the pattern established in shot 2 at the beginning of this sequence. Corbijn doesn’t show us the focus changing in shot so as not to be so obvious about the shift in emphasis within the scene (back to the car). Still, the shift is apparent:
Here’s where we get a small, but significant, anti-traditional moment. In the same shot as that above – that is, without using any insert or close-up shot to hide the change in focus – Corbijn changes (racks) the focus from the car to Jack, on the action of Jack’s head turn. What’s anti-traditional about this? Well, it’s the complete opposite of almost any production, which would be: start on the character who is thinking, rack the focus to what the character is looking at when he/she looks. This latter way seems more logical. Corbijn’s method, which racks to the looker at the look, and not to the object of the gaze, pulls us away from the actual mystery and back into Jack’s head. It’s startling if you’re looking for it to happen the “normal” way (I was), and it’s effective in disallowing a full shift into straight-up thriller, and maintaining the film’s position as psychological character study:
The scene ends with two shots of Jack, alone, engulfed in the emptiness surrounding him:
It’s a gorgeous sequence, and one of many in the film that is subtle enough but still directs our gaze in new, interesting, and appropriate ways.