I’m starting to think of 2010 as the year of George. Leonardo Di Caprio may have swung in to steal our summer with Shutter Island and Incep-filmoftheyear-tion, but it feels as if George Clooney simply went about his business and delivered two completely astounding, and utterly disparate performances.
When it was released in January Up in the Air was a feel good way to ease us into the year ahead and a reminder that Hollywood is at its best when it is at its most whimsical. As Ryan Bingham, Clooney was everything we have come to associate with the myth of George; charm, sophistication, confidence, a dab hand with the ladeez.
Fast forward to today and witness The American featuring George’s star performance as Jack, the titular character. It looks like George. It sounds like George. It even dresses a bit like George (as in wearing clearly expensive designer clothes). But that is where the similarities cease.
Jack is a hitman who is left to fend for himself in an Italian village. He is skilled, professional and resourceful. He is also alone. And vulnerable. And paranoid. And defensive. He is desperate for physical connection to the point of paying for it. He laughs in the face of religion by striking a relationship with a priest whilst holding onto his atheism. He is cold and ruthless (ok these last two are a bit like Ryan Bingham).
The point is that this is a completely different side to George Clooney’s more familiar repertoire. When he has played fragile characters in the past they have been set around more comedic locales- for example his turns in The Men Who Stared at Goats and Welcome To Collinwood. Not since Syriana has George looked so frayed at the edges.
The American offer’s Clooney the opportunity to adapt his performance into more serious situations. There is still the same gruff delivery of lines, the pensive stares and long pauses. He carries himself as he always has and walks the cobbled streets as if he were Danny Ocean all over again.
However the changes come when Jack is faced with the unexpected. A car backfires or he drops his book as he drifts to sleep; suddenly Jack is fired up with his weapon drawn, ready to eliminate the threat and ask questions later.
Jack enjoys the company of women, but not at the expense of his security. At the first sign of danger, even when he is starting to open himself up to a new love interest, his gun is back in his hand just in case. Suddenly everything he sees and hears has the potential to destroy him and assert that the new people in his life could be out to get him.
Jack trusts no one; everything he does is behind closed doors. His distrust of women in particular feels like a direct pastiche of glossier spy films where letting someone into your life could be the end of the road; everything becomes nothing until eventually nothing becomes everything.
The role is a master class in nuance, much like the rest of the film. Anton Corbijn’s follow up to Control is yet more proof that this director is destined for great things. The two films could not be more dissimilar and yet they both exude a confidence and assurance in pace and storytelling that is hard to replicate. Despite the murderous tomes the Italian countryside still looks breathtaking and the overhead shots in particular are fascinating to behold.
The American could be accused of being long (1hr 45) and even slightly devoid of major incident, but it never outstays its welcome and is a constant strain on the viewer’s senses; each noise, each camera angle becomes another opportunity for someone to creep out and surprise us, and as the film goes on our paranoia grows like that of its hero.
The spy genre has been well drained over the years and recent revivals in the shape of Bond and Bourne have shown that there is still life in the continuing exploits of those who get their missions sent to them via self-destruct devices. The American succeeds by virtue of the fact that it never feels like a spy film. It is instead the supposition of what would happen if a character from a spy movie was dropped into the real world; would every waking minute be spent waiting for someone to come round the corner? How methodical would someone have to be to ensure their safety in a new environment? Would that preparedness and expectation eventually lead to madness?
The American asks a lot of questions and in the process provides audiences with one of the most realistic portrayals of isolation in recent years.
Ryan Bingham was a man who thought he didn’t need anybody but eventually learnt that humanity was the answer; Jack knows that no matter how hard he tries to create a life of his own, there is no escaping his job, or his past.
If you’ve seen The American already then hopefully all of the above will make sense- if you haven’t seen it then hopefully it makes you want to check it out, and you should as it is truly one of 2010’s most rewarding films and proof if ever it were needed that George Clooney is an institutional phenomenon.