The James Clayton Column: The hidden heart of the American

Anton Corbijn’s The American may appear to be a portrait of a cold-hearted killer, but there’s a real humanity beneath its surface, James writes…

There’s a scene in The American where George Clooney’s character, named Jack, Edward, Butterfly and Farfalla, depending on the circumstances, spends an evening in a cheap Italian café where Once Upon A Time In The West is playing on TV in the background.

It’s a pertinent moment, a glimpse of a stone-cold classic motion picture in what I feel is a stone-cold classic motion picture. I’d rate both movies as being perfect masterpieces, but the convergence of the two feels very appropriate for other reasons.

They’re vastly different movies, of course, but there are striking parallels. At the most fundamental level they both focus on haunted individuals who have ‘something to do with death’.

With his spaghetti westerns Sergio Leone, a foreign outside eye, deconstructed American mythology and, with Once Upon A Time In The West especially, grappled with the authenticity of a nation’s identity and how it was built. There’s a touch of that sort of activity happening in Anton Corbijn’s second feature film.

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When the café owner proudly proclaims “Sergio Leone! Italiano!”, you almost expect the main actor to respond with “George Clooney! American!” in line with his image as a shining icon of the USA. He’s a handsome and masculine rugged individual with a sparkling smile associated with Hollywood entertainment, A-list glamour and Democratic idealism.

That’s a pretty shallow summary of a intelligent personality who repeatedly takes on challenging parts and directs his own sophisticated movies but, nevertheless, to some audiences he’ll still be the hunk from ER or a suave bachelor from coffee adverts (or the version of Batman who wore the suit with pronounced nipples).

Clooney is, therefore, perfectly cast as the enigmatic title character of The American, not just because he is such a compelling and excellent actor, but because of those associations. Like Leone playing with Henry Fonda’s persona in Once Upon A Time In The West or Alfred Hitchcock (British), screwing with the Jimmy Stewart type, Anton Corbijn is a European twisting an established all-American persona.

Clooney’s ‘Farfalla’ is a foreigner in exile in the rustic Italian rural backwaters, but we don’t get the ‘loud, obnoxious American tourist’ clichés. We also aren’t forcefed a mass of trite Italian stereotypes, and the shadows of World War II occupation or mafia movies don’t cloak the encounter of the two national identities either.

The American isn’t a story built on stereotypes and superficial imagery. Its poignancy and power comes from the fact it doesn’t dwell in cultural constructs, but delves deeper. Indeed, Anton Corbijn’s subtle thriller isn’t really about an American, but about being human and about being dehumanised.

Clooney’s character, an assassin, really has no identity. He has multiple names and is a confused contradiction. He says he’s no good with machines but is a master craftsman with obvious expertise, whether he’s building a rifle or fixing up a broken down automobile.

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The only consistent handle that anyone has on him is the fact that he identifies as American and, as above, he doesn’t impress himself as an archetypal Yank. Altogether, he’s just a blank individual without a past, a quiet loner whom no one can penetrate and whose personality is repressed below conditioned reticence.

He and Jean Reno’s Léon of The Professional are both very alike in that they are introverted, meticulous killing machines whose work has led them to alienating loss and tragic isolation. Léon’s personality and true identity are suppressed and hidden behind those shades. The only expressions of humanity on display are in his taste for milk, his affection for his pet plant and his adoption of Natalie Portman’s Mathilda.

With Jack in The American we get even fewer hints. The protagonist’s reach for love and empathy is in the soul connection he tries to kindle with Clara (Violante Placido). Otherwise we get scant few details or indication of character, even in his conversations with the priest, Father Benedetto.

He’s a bare void of a figure whose existence is built on violent deeds and those events are brief and sporadic. The action in The American stirs up thoughts of Kurosawa and Peckinpah movies (Sam Peckinpah being another director concerned with dismantling myths about America and ‘heroic’ bloodshed). It happens in short, messy bursts without glamour or triumph and then there’s chilling emptiness.

That’s how violence actually unfolds in the real world. If your identity is centred around these short spasms, then who or what are you the rest of the time? Inactive and in hiding, with only himself and the absence of things to contemplate, the assassin with many names is a truly lost man.

What the character does have, though, is a few tattoos. They don’t provide any clues to help us break through the mystery, but the butterfly positioned at the top of his back resonates. That’s the mark that comes to define him as he develops his relationship with Clara (who calls him “Signor Farfalla”), that the camera keeps on catching sight of and that symbolically starts to really mean something as The American progresses towards its later stages.

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A fragile, pretty little thing below the facade he wears, the image of a butterfly suggests that there is something more to this figure, a human being of feeling and emotion alive underneath.

Butterflies representing souls in bondage desperate to fly free is an age-old idea present in films like Papillon, for instance. Whereas the Mr Butterfly of that film (Steve McQueen) is imprisoned by the penal colony system, however, the protagonist of The American is trapped by himself and the private, grim profession he’s pursued that has made him into this particular person, a dehumanised non-person.

His exile and relationship with Clara come around to make him consider quitting and bring Signor Farfalla hope that his trapped soul can find freedom. But breaking free seems impossible when, butterfly effect style, executions he enacts in Sweden ripple out and disturb his Italian solitude.

As a lone assassin, he’s one small figure who’s beat out little movements with far-reaching impact. The generated waves of death that surround are now overwhelming. No one can get close and he can’t escape himself.

The American nails that idea, true for both those with ‘something to do with death’ and wider humanity as a whole. Little actions have consequences. They spread and create growing reverberations which distance and damage both others and ourselves.

Corbijn’s profound film isn’t about an American at all. It’s about being human and being dehumanised.

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James’ previous column can be found here.

James sketched a series of movie-spoof comics and they can be found here.

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