Yesterday I saw a preview of The American, Anton Corbijn's second feature film after Control (2008). It looks a lot like this:
Corbijn is a photographer and music video director. His eye is for the visual image, which is precisely the right starting point for anyone wanting to make a film. Control and The American are both fairly successful as Corbijn plays to his own strengths, pulling out a string of interesting, complementary visuals that bring out the story.
The problem with both Control and The American is that neither film has much to say sui generis. This is fine for Control which, after all, is a biopic (it also makes use of the remarkable Samantha Morton who also pops up in an earlier Corbijn video for U2, who, in either case, lends some sort of on-screen autonomy to her character despite fulfilling a third party role in respect of the basic material).
The American is a different matter though. Whilst George Clooney is well-cast as an ascetic hitman both he and Corbijn seem to be too deferent to the source material (Martin Booth's A Very Private Gentleman), even though this has changes in its adaption for the screen. They create some good images together, a steady sense of tone, but it lacks a sense of momentum. There's no causality involved, no underlying gravitational pull of fate, the whodunnit, obsession - not even love.
Actually, I think that Corbijn's on to something in general. His full-length film-making is clearly moving forward fast. The American features a number of references to other, similar films: Jarmusch's The Limits Of Control, Zinneman's classic assassin slow-burner The Day Of The Jackal, various Japanese samurai honor-code dramas, including John Frankenheimer's Ronin. It even shows the Leone classic Once Upon A Time In The West, from which many shot compositions and a general sense of pacing are borrowed, playing on a café television. All these transpositions are well-realised. Yet it's as if he's trying to get to grips with film grammar by copying ideally constructed sentences from a long-assembled textbook*. It requires a little more original poetry, some flexibility and daring in order to pique interest, not just satisfy it.
*a case in point: Corbijn's video for Coldplay's Viva La Vida (2008) is a re-working/parody of his famous Enjoy The Silence video for Depeche Mode (1990). I can see the meeting in my mind's eye now, in which Chris Martin said 'I loved the Enjoy The Silence video, can we do something like that?' and Corbijn, being professional and dependable, did indeed do something just like that.