‘The American’: Quietly compelling

August 31, 2010

Let’s say this upfront: “The American” is not an audience movie in the generally recognized sense of the term.


It is not an action movie.


It is not a thriller in any conventional sense.


Forget about the TV commercials and theatrical trailers that make it look like George Clooney is playing some Jason Bourne-like character, mowing down every bad guy who gets in his way.


It’s not that movie. Instead, it’s an art film. Anyone who goes in expecting it to be in any way a typical Hollywood product will be sorely disappointed.


Now, having said that, let me say how much I enjoyed “The American.” It is one of the most beautifully photographed, controlled, even formal films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a character study with a thoroughly European sensibility, an examination of one man coming to terms with his own sins and shortcomings. It is a film that rewards the patient viewer with a superbly understated Clooney performance; everyone else will, unfortunately, be bored silly.


As played by Clooney, Jack (or Edward, depending on who he’s talking to) is a professional killer whose last job went south in a bad way. Initially seen in a post-prandial pose in a Swedish cabin on a wintry lake with a naked woman, it ends with Clooney having killed three people.


As he rides a ferry back to whatever it is that his life is, the bearded Clooney has a decidedly haunted cast to his features. That slightly doomy countenance – not nervous but intensely alert, as much anticipating the hand of karma as guarding against the expected bullet from an enemy – rarely leaves Clooney’s face through “The American.”


Jack heads for Rome, where his employer (Johan Leysen) offers him a refuge and another assignment: a job that doesn’t involve killing anyone. Rather, he heads for a tiny town in the Italian hills, where he meets a woman (Thekla Reuten) in search of a custom-made weapon, one with the capacity of a machine gun and the range of a rifle. Jack’s job is to build it for her (though his mantra to anyone who asks is “I’m not good with machines”). She’s obviously a professional, but Jack is so much of a pro (and so withdrawn) that he only asks about specifications and otherwise speaks when spoken to.


And, really, that’s it. He holes up in the little town, orders the parts, scavenges the rest, machines them into the gun and noise-suppressor that she seeks and, eventually delivers the product. There is one action interlude, in which he realizes he’s being followed by another killer and has a showdown – and then a violent finale. The end.


A word about the town of Castel del Monte, where much of the film is set: Given that it is picture-postcard beautiful, it is perhaps the most deserted little burg in the world. Really, there’s never anyone on the street, no matter what time of day or night Jack goes for a stroll. Except for one person: the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), who knows a tortured soul when he sees one and frequently strikes up relatively one-sided conversations with the taciturn Jack.


The only other person who figures in Jack’s existence is a prostitute from another town, Clara (Violante Placido), who begins as Jack’s physical outlet and ends up as his lover. You know this guy is doomed when, perpetual loner that he is, he begins having actual feelings for her (even if some of them are suspicion).


Suspicion, however, is his natural state of existence, layering the film with a sense of dread that is palpable. It’s in the careful camera set-ups that Corbijn uses, whether in the painterly landscapes and aerial shots of the amazing Italian countryside and the small town, or in the fascinating close-ups of Clooney, an actor who does an amazing job of conveying a pain and regret from which there is no escape, while speaking barely a word.


And those are the true pleasures of “The American”: Clooney’s study in stillness and Corbijn’s striking images (the cinematographer is Martin Ruhe, but Corbijn, a noted still photographer, is obviously in complete control).


The dialogue in Rowan Joffe’s script (from the novel by Martin Booth) is almost gestural in nature, with discussion of sin and forgiveness between the priest and Jack, and the prostitute Clara’s chatter about Jack’s obviously dark secret. (The fact that the name, Clara, means “clear” is not accidental.)


There isn’t much talk in the film, just enough to move from scene to scene. But the character of Jack is played almost entirely in Clooney’s eyes and in his face. It is, depending on your point of view, a beautifully restrained performance – or a completely unexpressive one.


I think “The American” is an outstanding film – not a masterpiece, but a daring exercise in trust that the audience doesn’t need wisecracks, automatic-weapon gunfights, explosions and elaborate car chases to tell a story that plumbs the depths of one man’s dark soul. No doubt Corbijn has overestimated the mass audience, but I admire him for having the nerve to do so.



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