The American is being promoted as a thriller and that is not entirely inappropriate. The film is the story of an aging assassin/specialty weapon maker called Jack – when he isn’t going by Edward – who realizes that he’s losing his edge and wants out. Of course, when you’re a master assassin and weapon maker, it’s not that easy.
The film opens with Jack [George Clooney] in a cozy cabin in Sweden with a beautiful woman – a situation that is warm and tender until the next morning when the two step outside and into a brief but shocking bit of gunplay. After taking care of an ambush, Jack shots his lover in the back! There must be no witnesses. At this moment, we realize that Jack is a professional. A brief phone conversation with someone named Pavel [Johan Leysen] makes it clear that Jack is an assassin.
Following instructions, Jack heads to Italy, seeking a quiet village in which to lie low – but the village he is sent to by Pavel doesn’t work for him, so he improvises and chooses another, slightly less picturesque village. He throws his cell phone away and contacts Pavel only via a pay phone in yet another village. When he goes to ground, he does so thoroughly.
His brief contacts with Pavel result in another job – not killing, this time, but building a custom weapon for another assassin, a lovely young woman named Mathilde [Thekla Reuten]. They meet at a prearranged neutral location and their conversation deals only and very specifically with the specs for the weapon she requires for her next hob [which is never actually mentioned].
In the meantime, Jack/Edward has gotten settled in and in exploring his new home, has encountered a very fatherly priest named Benedetto [Paolo Bonacelli] and taken to satisfying his physical needs with a beautiful prostitute named Clara [Violante Placido] and soon becomes more than just her regular customer.
When not availing himself of Father Benedetto’s cooking, or Clara’s services, he works out – push ups, chin ups, sit ups, the man may be aging, but he’s fighting it with every fibre of his being. You’ve got to stay sharp in his lie of work.
As we know he must, he is tracked down and forced to kill to survive; as we know he will, he develops feelings for Clara – as she does for him. We know where Mathilde’s arc is leading, and may suspect its outcome. We may suspect the movie’s final moments, but we might yet be surprised. The events may be predictable, but their timing – and their meaning – may perhaps be less so.
By taking the tropes of the thriller – the killer who wants out; the one last job; the hooker with a heart of fold; the final duel and its aftermath – and placing them under a microscope, director Anton Corbijn [Control] shows the truth beneath the clichés – and the beauty there is in at least trying for redemption.
Clooney’s Jack is a character who has survived by learning to work within himself. He has always been an island – though he seems to have begun building bridges to the mainland when we first meet him. There’s an economy to his movements that suggests his past has been lived carefully and within a set of self-specified rules. There is a sadness behind his eyes that only flickers to the forefront occasionally – those first moments pf the film, before the ambush; those moments with Clara after she becomes more to him than a provider of a service – and maybe once in one of his conversations with Father Benedetto… Clooney’s performance is so minutely modulated that it is a marvel to watch.
The American is a beautifully shot film. There isn’t a frame that isn’t beautiful, but that beauty only reaches Jack in a very few moments – we can tell that he wishes it happened more often, but he does what he’s good at and that isn’t beautiful, at all. Even the brief moments of violence are terrifyingly beautiful, as if to say that even death is beautiful when seen from the right angle.
This is not a film that makes itself easy to watch, but it does seduce with its very deliberateness. At first Jack is a cipher – tightly bound and withheld – but gradually opening up, opening up just the littlest bit. Maybe it’s his fascination with butterflies – he has a butterfly tattooed between his should blades. Maybe it’s that capacity for transformation that we never quite get to see in him – at least, not beyond a hint…
Whatever the case, The American is a film that rewards attention and patience. It may be one of the last summer releases, but it feels more like that hint of spring in the late February dawn.
Final Grade: A