THE AMERICAN. Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, and Johan Leysen. Directed by Anton Corbijn. Rated MA15+ Restricted (Strong sex scene). 105 min.
This film is based loosely on a 1990 book, “A Very Private Gentleman”, by Martin Booth, novelist and poet. It begins with a seemingly idyllic scene in rural Sweden that is interrupted violently by two hit-men coming to kill Jack (George Clooney), who is with his lover. Jack is variously known as Jack, Mr. Butterfly (matching a tattoo on his body), or The American. He kills the hit-men, but coldly despatches his innocent lover, because she was a witness to it all. Under orders from his boss (Johan Leysen), Jack retreats to Castel del Monte, Abruzzo, a commune and rural town in the Province of L’Aquila, Italy, where he spends most of his time drinking coffee, looking for closeness that has eluded him so far, and making friends with the local prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), and a priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli). The priest suspects Jack’s cover hides other truths. The escape to the town is arranged, because Jack agrees to one last assignment. It is not to kill, but to construct a special weapon with enormous firepower to be used by a fellow assassin, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten).
This is a thriller about a cold and ruthless killer on the run. Jack is in hiding to avoid being hunted, but finds himself mysteriously targeted by someone in the village. Jack wants “out” from the assassin’s life, but becomes suspicious of everyone, because his life is being threatened for no apparent reason. Even the prostitute, with whom he has become very friendly, has a gun in her purse, and the priest to whom he almost confesses has a shameful past, as he has. Once Jack reaches Italy, the movie moves at a slow pace, but its presentation is always elegant, and the film never loses tension. While not a conventional thriller, it is photographed beautifully, and produced very stylishly. In the movie, George Clooney’s typically outgoing charisma is put on hold. Jack is careful not to smile, looks confused most of the time, says little, but stays alert always to what might happen. Most of his suspicions are ill-founded, but some aren’t.
At a dramatic level, the plot-line in this movie is thin and enigmatic. “The American” may well be a metaphor for modern America trying to find its soul, after having lost its way on the world stage. Corbijn, who was once a cinema photographer shows his skills admirably in directing the movie with Hitchcockian flair. At another level, this film offers a thinking person’s version of what contract killing is about. Jack explains to Father Bendetto that he is a photographer, who has been hired to capture images for tourist magazines; ironically, the film throughout deals tensely with the appearances of things and what might lie behind them. Jack’s world is a dark one, filled with loneliness and isolation. Laying aside the film as a possible metaphor for a country that has lost its way, the film is an intelligent exploration of the mind and heart of an unemotional killer, who wants a passage back to humanity. In the past, Jack has had to kill those who got too close to him, and he now wants to escape from that way of thinking and acting.
This is a complex movie with philosophical, religious and romantic overtones that mark the film as an artistic attempt to explore the soul of an alienated individual. Jack is not a very likeable person, and Clooney projects the complexities of Jack’s character very effectively. Ultimately, violence provides an unexpected solution. Clooney’s performance is understated, but he imbues the characteristics of a disturbed individual subtly and with impact. The look of this film is distinctly European. Characteristic of such a movie, Jack’s chosen life eventually undergoes a fateful twist. Clara helps him to find intimacy and Father Benedetto helps him to find meaning, but his search for both intimacy and meaning has come too late.
It is interesting that violence is not mentioned in the film’s censorship classification. Rather, intimacy is signalled by a particularly intense sex scene between Jack and Clara. Violence is not what this film is all about, but it is always lurking there, and the film is a world apart from conventional, hit-and-run movies like “The Bourne Supremacy”. This is an engrossing movie, but not for the reasons one might suspect. The film moves slowly and deliberately, but very rewardingly, into the world of an anguished man, who is trying desperately to find his way back from his abyss.
Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out November 11, 2010.