It is a fair bet that Anton Corbijn’s The American is not the kind of movie that most audiences expected it to be. It does not explode with gunfire, car chases, or deafening action sequences. It does not take any nationalistic or patriotic stance. It is not about terrorism. It is not, in a word, showy. On the contrary, The American is a hushed, sparse, lonely film that comes about as close to originality as any assassin movie I can think of. It deftly traffics in metaphor without explaining too much. Though its premise may be played out, The American quickly proves that it is anything but cliche, and can keep you thinking for hours afterward. The breathtaking cinematography in the film conveys isolation while capturing the beauty of rural Italian life. A wide-angle lens and asymmetrical shots do as much work as the performers in communicating alienation and suspense, though the acting, too, is superb in its own right.
George Clooney plays Jack, an assassin for unknown employers and, of course, an American. While his names change (he is also referred to as “Edward” and “Mister Butterfly”), he is both personally and professionally labeled by his nationality, which is the lone characteristic that truly identifies him and, paradoxically, the one thing that prevents him from blending in. The movie opens in Sweden at the culmination of what we learn is a botched assignment, in which an innocent bystander (a woman who also happened to be Jack’s lover) is killed. Though the tragic and unnecessary event haunts Jack throughout the film, the extent of his trauma is blessedly subdued. One does not get to be as quick, clever, and single-minded a hit man as Jack is portrayed without getting a little blood on one’s hands, and Jack seems to be aware of that.
His employer, Pavel (Johan Leysen), implies that Jack has no one to blame but himself, and that he is getting sloppy in his work. “Don’t make any friends, Jack,” he warns. “You used to know that.” Pavel sends him to a small town in Italy to lie low and await instructions for his next assignment, which are delivered by the beautiful and mysterious Mathilde (wonderfully portrayed by Thekla Reuten). His job is to skillfully craft a sophisticated weapon “with the firing capacity of a sub-machine gun and the range of a rifle.” Apparently Jack is also quite the gunsmith. In fact, some of the most surprisingly engaging scenes in The American are devoted to the solitary task of Clooney poring over a heap of metal scraps and slowly, contemplatively designing this masterpiece.
In the meantime, he has encountered and inadvertently befriended a priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who has secrets of his own and consequently realizes that there may be more to Jack (or “Edward” to his Italian neighbors) than meets the eye. The priest sees a kindred spirit in the younger man, and Jack’s efforts to discourage his friendly advances are only halfhearted, as he also desires some sort of companionship and acknowledges Benedetto’s obvious wisdom. Benedetto knows that Jack is not who he says he is (a travel photographer), and Jack is fully aware of Benedetto’s hunch, but neither one seems to care, which infuses their relationship with a kind of intimacy unparalleled in the rest of the movie. Benedetto finds several inconsistencies in Jack’s story (such as his comical insistence that he is “no good with machines”) and observes, “You have the hands of a craftsman, not an artist.”
No sooner has Jack found a chum in the neighborhood priest than he becomes romantically entangled with Clara (Violante Placido), his local prostitute of choice. The two engage in some brilliantly directed lovemaking that actually advances character development (quite a feat when you think about it) and doesn’t seem the least bit gratuitous. I’ll leave any description of the racier scenes at that. However, if anyone’s performance leaves something to be desired, it is Placido’s “hooker with a heart of gold,” who brings just a smidge too much naivete to Clara’s character, considering her profession. Still, she fulfills the crucial role of providing a sense of purpose and motivation for Jack, while never letting the viewer forget that Jack has ignored his employer’s warning and “made friends.”
The second half of the movie falls a bit short of the expectations set up in the first, but by then it barely matters. The important points have already been made, developed, and expanded upon. Any plot developments that subsequently bring the film to its polished conclusion can simply be watched and enjoyed. Everything fits in this movie. Though it relies very little on dialogue to explain the events surrounding Jack’s circumstances, The American is extremely easy to follow, demonstrating that a story does not have to be convoluted to be compelling. In fact, the sparse dialogue allows the elegant acting to do what good performances should do—tell a story. It is truly unwise to divert your eyes from the screen for a moment, lest you miss a facial expression or silent gesture that opens the door to whole new layers of meaning. This expertise applies to all the actors, but especially Clooney, who both shines and seethes with an elegance that far surpasses his previous performances.
Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, Johan Leysen
Director: Anton Corbijn
Runtime: 103 minutes
Distributor: Focus Features