by George Sax
I’m not good with machines,” Jack says. He’s the title character in Anton Corbijn’s The American. Later, he repeats it. To a different person. It’s sort of a joke.
It’s also the way Jack (George Clooney) speaks in much of the movie, in a clipped, laconic fashion. (And it’s kind of easy to get in that groove oneself.) The joke is that Jack’s really very adept with machines, with cars and motor bikes, and with guns and their accessories. He even makes his own sound suppressor for a rifle out of auto repair shop parts. This particular set of skills is rather important to Jack because his trade is murder and he works for a sort of assassination bureau based in Rome.
In the course of the movie we learn virtually nothing about Jack, not even his last name. We only know he’s fled to Italy after an attempt was made on his life in Sweden in the movie’s opening moments. (The unlucky would-be slayers are referred to only as “the Swedes” and their motives remain unrevealed.) We’re just along for the ride, and it’s strongly implied we’re not supposed to ask any questions. The trip is scenic, sometimes spectacularly, in an elegant, chromatically subdued way. The journey takes Jack and us to a mountainside village in Abruzzo, east of Rome. There he’s supposed to make contact with another assassin, a woman (Thekla Reuten), and procure for her a weapon of her specified requirements. “You won’t even have to pull the trigger,” Pavel (Johan Leysen), his boss in Rome, tells him.
While he’s going about his work Jack becomes involved with Clara, a prostitute (Violante Placido) and is befriended by the village priest (Paulo Bonacelli). The gregarious, inquisitive cleric tries to inquire into Jack’s reasons for being in this place (he’s supposed to be a commercial photographer, but seems to have no camera nor to take any pictures) and begins to be concerned about this stranger’s spiritual condition.
Father Benedetto is perceptive. We may get no bio information about him, but presently we are shown that Jack’s soul is at least a bit tortured, and sensitive enough to appreciate the butterfly, including one endangered kind.
The American is a stylishly, cooly downbeat movie that trades heavily on its carefully fashioned atmospherics. It’s the un-Bourne thriller. It proceeds methodically, with a spare, Hemingway-esque economy of dialogue. Although there are several brief spasms of violent action, and one expertly handled, more extended chase sequence through the village’s narrow, serpentine streets, the filmmakers have concentrated their efforts on creating a quietly ominous cinematic environment. Corbijn has an obvious aptitude for this work. Some of his scenes are strikingly but unemphatically effective. Corbijn, a former photographer, often fills the frame with compelling horizontal compositions. In one, in a nearly wordless scene in a remote café, he pulls the camera back to show Jack suddenly sitting alone in the wide room as he begins to fear he has been set up. Corbijn can also handle interpersonal scenes of tension. One little gem features Jack and Clara at a creekside picnic site while he grimly and anxiously wonders if she is really a deadly emissary from his unidentified enemies.
All this ominous scene-setting would be a lot more involving if it was in the service of something beside itself, if something was really happening in The American. But there’s very little going on most of the time, and the end twist toward which the movie is slowly making its way can be guessed by any modestly attentive and clever viewer.
The American is romantic about lone-wolf, conscience-troubled contract killers and whores, in a regressive spirit of extended adolescence. This attitude inflates the movie until it quickly deflates as its silly, curiously muddled final minutes wind down. The movie was adapted (by Rowan Joffe) from Martin Booth’s 2004 novel, A Very Private Gentleman, but when Jack tells the priest “all men are sinners” it begins to sound something like clearance-sale Graham Greene.
The American is art-house pulp cinema. Its carefully composed style and cool amount to a thin, attitudizing shell around an absence of content.
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