The folks at Focus Features have kept “The American” pretty much under wraps until opening day, and as it turns out, understandably so. The film is being marketed as a “Bourne”-style adrenaline rush, but in actuality it’s a stately existential examination of a man at the end of his rope, and though it stars George Clooney (and despite the title), its sensibility is thoroughly European. Offering more angst than action, it creates a mood of overwhelming depression that’s all too likely to engulf the audience as well as the protagonist.
Clooney, stifling his natural charisma in favor of clenched-jawed grimness, plays a fellow known only as Jack, who’s first seen in snowbound Scandinavia snuggling with a woman (Irina Bjorklund) in a remote cabin. When they go out for a walk, they’re ambushed by a couple of assassins, whom Jack dispatches with practiced skill. But he also kills the woman.
He is, you see, some sort of international hit-man with a facility, we later learn, in manufacturing specialty weapons from scratch. And when he contacts his boss (impassive Johan Leysen) and tells him about his near-escape, he’s told to proceed to a small mountainside town in Italy where he’ll make a rifle for a beautiful but deadly client (Thekla Reuten). There, in addition to methodically constructing the gun, he wards off another would-be assassin while engaging in conversations about life and death with the local priest (Pacio Bonacelli, whose accent makes some of his dialogue hard to decipher), a gregarious fellow who admits to having fathered a number of sons, and in a romance with a voluptuous prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido, pretty and happy to disrobe).
There are a few action sequences in “The American”—the opening shoot-out, the chase between Jack and his would-be killer down the stairs of the village’s twisty narrow streets. But for the most part the picture focuses on the man’s gloomy realization that he can’t trust anyone, and consists of endless shots of Clooney brooding as he walks the cobblestones, fashions the gun or wonders about the motivation of his boss and their client. The script by Rowan Joffe, based on a novel by Martin Booth, is pretty short on dialogue, but the little there is can be pretty obvious. The point is all too clear when Father Benedetto remarks during one of their discussions that Jack is “in hell,” and Clara later calls the idyllic spot where Jack takes her for a picnic (and where he’s earlier tested his rifle) “paradise.” And on several occasions Jack is referred to as “Mr. Butterfly”—after a critter that lives but a brief time. Yeah, we get it, and the ending doesn’t disappoint our expectations.
Still, it’s easy to understand why this piece, as lugubrious and inert as it is, attracted the attention of director Anton Corbijn, who began his career as a still photographer and cover designer. The location is a striking one—the first shot of the terraced village on the side of the mountain, the church steeple rising at the top, is beautifully composed, and throughout one senses a keen eye at work (the cinematography is by Martin Ruhe). He doesn’t show nearly as much aptitude in choreographing the action moments or generating suspense in quieter ones as he does in fashioning careful compositions, but his visual sense is obvious.
It’s also understandable why Clooney took to the project. He did so partly for philanthropic reasons—L’Aquila, near the filming site, had recently been damaged in an earthquake, and the shoot brought much-needed funds into the area. But the actor periodically gravitates to films that subvert genre expectations, usually to unfortunate effect. In that respect, “The American” is to the spy thriller what “Solaris” was to science fiction pictures.
You’ve been warned.