He is the precision instrument
by Jason Blair
THE AMERICAN: Directed by Anton Corbijn. Written by Rowan Joffe, based on the novel by Martin Booth. Cinematography, Martin Ruhe. Music, Herbert Grönemeyer. Starring George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten and Paolo Bonacelli. Focus Features, 2010. R. 103 minutes.
As he did in last year’s Up in the Air and 2007’s Michael Clayton, in The American George Clooney plays a lonely hitman who’s yearning for a change of career. But while previous films showcased Clooney in the mode of hushed corporate fixer, in The American, Clooney plays Jack, an actual assassin who can barely be coaxed to speak. What he does say isn’t particularly reliable. He routinely claims, “I’m no good with machines,” only to appear in a subsequent scene repairing an engine or building a rifle from scratch. What he’s no good with, it turns out, are people.
At the outset of The American, Jack flees Dalarna, Sweden, leaving behind several dead bodies in the snow. We’re meant to understand this was a vacation interrupted. During a subsequent meeting with his superior, Pavel (a menacing Johan Leyson), he’s accused of having lost his edge by allowing his heart to rule his head. In this sense, Jack is a gunslinger in the tradition of Shane and Jason Bourne, men who enjoy intimate contact only at great personal risk. It’s an old conceit that raises several possibilities, among them whether Jack has an exit strategy sufficient to overcome his inability to remain invisible. As a prelude to retiring, Jack accepts a final assignment, which is to build a custom rifle for a beautiful hitgirl named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). The mystery isn’t who will pull the trigger, but on whom the deadly instrument will be used.
Much of The American takes place in the Italian village of Castel Del Monte. Nestled in the Abruzzo mountains, the hamlet is both exposed to and isolated from the world, the stacked villas connected by staircase coils reminiscent of a labyrinth. The setting is a metaphor for Jack’s situation. While in the village carrying out his last job, Jack befriends a prostitute and a priest — the former wants his commitment, the latter his confession — neither of whom recognize the peril they face by their association with Jack. While Jack’s conversations with the priest (Paolo Bonacelli) feel heavy with foreboding, his scenes with the prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), feel light with the promise, however transient, of real affection. That is, until Jack begins to suspect her motives.
Taking his cue from his primary character, director Anton Corbijn (Control) settles into a pace that is methodical, purposeful and determined. For audiences drawn to The American by Clooney’s aura, this will be a problem. The American, like the man it profiles, is disciplined and patient, with long bouts of Jack at work that exhibit a literary, even abstract quality. (Most of us won’t understand Jack’s methods.) Clooney establishes Jack as a craftsman, and boy, can he shoot, but who is Jack? Where does he come from? Is Jack even his real name? There isn’t nearly enough happening in The American to satisfy American audiences, which will discover an arthouse film masquerading as a thriller.
Corbijn has created a serious study of a brooding, intensely focused man, so it follows that the film is brooding and intense. But The American has something like a spooked quality — a combination, perhaps, of Corbijn’s careful direction and Clooney’s portrayal of a supremely paranoid assassin. The result is a film that’s more appreciated than enjoyed. While its theme of crossing emotional divides is resilient, its presentation is too subdued and inert.