The American is a European-style art film that happens to star one of the biggest movie stars in the world. The previews understandably played up the action to draw a crowd, but the crowd did not get what it came for. Consequently, the film won it’s opening weekend in box office, but experienced a harsh backlash from audiences. In the showing I attended, people around me started complaining as soon as the film ended (screen to black--immediately, two rows back: “Awful! Just awful!”). If you attend with the proper expectations, however, you might find a beautifully shot and fascinating, if flawed, character study well worth your attention.
George Clooney plays a master assassin generally known as Jack. This is not his real name, but no real name is ever given. He is no secret hero, or a killer with a conscience who only takes out bad guys, but a real assassin who will kill absolutely anyone to survive. After a deal goes bad and other killers are sent after him, his handler, known as Pavel, sends him to hide out in the Italian countryside. There he is given a job by a mysterious female assassin to build a gun for her, and carries on a torrid but low-key romance with a prostitute. And that is basically the entire plot.
Jack leads a highly disciplined, ascetic life. He rises at dawn, stretches, exercises, and reads ornithological guides while sitting in a coffee shop. When building a weapon, he works carefully and cleanly, intent on his work, a true craftsman in his element. Clooney plays him with careful restraint, doling out emotional details in small hand movements and eye-flicks. This is one of his finest performances. The director, Anton Corbijn, focuses on these little details, allowing them to gather import and emotion. He spent most of his career as a landscape photographer, and that comes through clearly here in a movie that is often breathtakingly beautiful, yet sterile and cold. He frames each shot with precision, the aloof compositions reflecting the personality of his protagonist.
Jack’s cold aloofness is a facade, though. He has grown old, and his hardness is leaving him. He begins to dream of escape and perhaps redemption. His asceticism is broken by talks with a local priest and repeated visits (shown in passionate and not completely necessary detail) with a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido). His desire for human connection leads him to gradually invest in these relationships, though he never reveals details of his work. The drama comes from his internal struggle with purpose and motivation as we wait for his enemies to discover him.
The most fascinating scenes are between Jack and the priest (Paolo Bonacelli). The priest is jowly and at first seems naive, but gradually reveals himself as a shrewd judge of character. He knows the American is hiding something, and suggests that Jack does not have to be what he is, that salvation is possible with God. Jack tries to deflect the questions, dismissing the idea of redemption for himself, but cannot shake that idea of being something else, of having some other job and life. Irritated by the way the priest gets under his skin--and desiring to see his own sin in everyone else--Jack noses into his private life and accuses him of hypocrisy. The priest, however, admits it easily enough, owning his actions and repenting from them. He is a sinner, not a hypocrite. His past actions still give him pain, but they also led to joy, and wisdom. Two possibilities of redemption (or at least escape) are presented to Jack: that of religion, and that of love of a woman. There is little doubt which one a man like him will choose.
The film is not without its logical problems. There are shootouts in the street that never bring any police, and character motivations that seem forced. Most grievously, the use of guns in the film is apparently hopelessly flawed (see here). This is a serious error, as the film is very specific in its gun details and presents Jack as an expert beyond experts. There is also a great deal of nudity, not all of which is warranted, though some contributes useful character and plot detail.
He is known to the locals as the American. I do not believe this is political, as some have suggested. Rather, it is reflective of his lack of personal detail and connection; he is known only by his nationality. Within, however, he is full of a pain that has been building up for years. When it finally boils over, and he hits the steering wheel in frustration, it is a moment of hopeless self-recrimination reminiscent of Jake Lamotta pounding the prison wall in Raging Bull. I left the theater shaken.
Rating: 7.5/10 Stars