Anton Corbijn's follow-up to his much-admired 2007 biopic of Ian Curtis is a studio star vehicle that concerns itself with an altogether different form of control. The American opens with a scene most Hollywood hitman movies leave until the beginning of Act Three, by way of a comic twist: someone discovering, amid the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire, that their beloved really does have a pistol in his pocket after all. Here, however, the revelation takes place against a snowy, desolate Scandinavian backdrop, and matters go badly wrong in a way that only serves to underline how isolated the protagonist, George Clooney's gunmaker-for-hire Edward, truly is.
Dispatched to a picturesque Italian village by his superiors - the idea being that a little sun might do this mope good - Edward goes a low-key kind of rogue, befriending the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and working out in that show-offy fashion common to films where the star is an executive producer. (Clooney reveals a weedy butterfly tattoo on his lower back, a symbol that will rematerialise as kitsch come the finale.) Our man is clearly in search of something - or maybe he's just trying to put his past behind him, to work something out in another way. It falls to a pair of women to coax this numbed figure back to life: first, his in-every-sense contact Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), whose opening gambit is to engage Edward in cold, hard shoptalk with an undertow of erotic possibility: "I want something large, a .556 preferably."
When the hero wonders whether this female assassin has been followed to their first meeting, Mathilde is insistent: "I'm alone". These are words that get to the crux of the matter, for what concerns The American more than anything is how far it might be possible for one man to remain truly alone, especially when he happens to look like George Clooney. Which is to say what we're dealing with here is photogenic existentialism, and thus poised on the very brink of absurdity throughout: given that Reuten sets out for a session of target practice in the countryside as though modelling the M&S spring collection, we might wonder when did the hired killers of Central Europe get so ravishing? (Perhaps, in the movies, it was ever thus.)
The brothel Edward frequents to ease the burden of solitude is improbably stocked with extras from a Fellini movie circa 1972, although Violante Placido as the hooker who opens up a secondary avenue for our hero's redemption - warning: it involves symbolic cunnilingus, in what might be a contender for any movie equivalent of the Bad Sex Prize - has at least been able to cultivate the curves-and-pubic-hair combo that seems beyond the remit of her Californian contemporaries.
Corbijn, at least, works the film's silences, its downtime, in a thoughtful, considered manner. "I'm no good with machines," Edward claims at an early stage, yet the evidence presented would suggest he's actually far better with tools than he is around people. The American's most compelling stretches find Clooney tinkering with his equipment: putting the pieces of his life back together again, trying to make something fit, or work, or go. The actor is often shot in profile, mulling things over, looking into the void; the film's climate may seem superficially sunnier than the grey and grimy monochrome of Control, yet its bleak worldview is not entirely dissimilar. That's, ultimately, part of the problem: the attempt to mix Hollywood glam with something tougher, sparer, more European doesn't wholly take, and what we're left with often looks like a Arena photoshoot modelled on Le Samourai.
If there's one element that keeps The American on just this side of terminal silliness, however, it's the star. Clooney has increasingly come to distance himself from the insistent clubbiness of the Ocean's movies to play a series of skilful variations on the man-in-exile theme. For The Sexiest Man on Earth™, he appears uncomfortable indeed in his love scenes with Placido, almost embarrassed - as he never was by Vera Farmiga in last year's Up in the Air - to have been confronted by the beauty of a woman almost twenty years his junior; such awkwardness perhaps goes towards a character both trying to reconnect and afraid to let his guard down again, but Clooney is more immediately persuasive in those scenes that find Edward alone, hunched over the workbench or haunting cafes, and particularly in the moment where, on his first legit date with the hooker, he finds himself stranded on the other side of the dinnertable, wondering if he can allow the pair of them to get it together.
The actor appears physically slimmer than in recent films, as though Edward were gnawing away at himself with guilt and doubt, and as if Clooney were intent on demonstrating he's now capable of playing not only Cary Grant (debonair lead), Frank Sinatra (Rat Pack rogue) and Barack Obama (liberal lynchpin), but Alain Delon (neurotic outsider) to boot. The American's best hope may be as an entry point into the more leftfield sections of the star's filmography for those fans who adored the sudsy romanticism of e.r., but couldn't honestly bring themselves to rent the remake of Solaris: it's too pretty on a basic level to convince as the pared-down noir Corbijn appears to be proposing, and it's telling the grisliest demise involves a gun designed to explode in the user's face. Everything here comes back to the eye, not the soul.
The American is currently available on DVD.