Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Limits The American's Control

I've written in the past (about another George Clooney film, in fact) how delicate a balance is required in order to maintain mood and tone in the cinema. All the good one sets out to accomplish can be so easily undone with the slightest nudge.

The American is a film all about mood and tone, and for it to be successful, it needs to take an extraordinarily measured approach in shot composition and editing. As Martin Scorsese said, "Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out," and the director of a film such as The American must have absolute command over this principle. Keeping in mind such antecedents as Antonioni's The Passenger, Melville's Le Samourai, and Jarmusch's The Limits of Control would be advised, though not strictly necessary. Any Antonioni or Jarmusch will do.

And when I say The American falls short of those films' achievements, I mean that neither as a backhanded compliment nor as a negative reaction. After all, I don't even really like The Limits of Control all that much. But it without a doubt sets a specific tone and maintains it absolutely for its running time. With The American, director Anton Corbijn establishes a certain mood but hasn't the full courage of his convictions. His tempo is measured and calm for much of the film, fitting his protagonist's manner, and Clooney is well up to the task of turning his natural instincts way down. The Clooney charm can't help but peak through from time to time, but this is otherwise a side of Clooney we've not yet seen. It's not just his calm (we've seen that in Solaris) - it's his control. Like Clooney, Corbijn can't quite maintain absolute control. Too often he buckles, allowing the music to flourish when quiet would be best, or removing us from our protagonist's point of view, to which we have otherwise been tethered.

Yet that simply makes The American an imperfect film, though thankfully not fatally so. One wants to praise this to the heavens in the midst of all the "it's too slow!" remarks burdening the Internets, but one must still be honest. It is still a wondeful, rapturous film, full of the tension that comes about only in quiet. The introspection of watching a man absolutely in his element (in constructing a rifle or working out) and completely out of it (the film's final moments in particular). The limits, that is, of his own control.

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