Directed by Anton Corbijn. Starring George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Johan Leysen, Paolo Bonacelli. (2010, R, 105 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 3, 2010
It’s billed as a dramatic thriller, but this American doesn’t contain the kind of film action most Americans are accustomed to in their thrillers. This film is quieter and more contemplative than most American shoot-’em-ups and, dare I say, more European in its thoughtful pacing, enigmatic mysteries, and inclusion of full-frontal female nudity. The gunplay and other action we witness in the film’s trailer occur mostly in the opening and closing minutes of the movie. In fact, the opening contretemps is a jolt, with its bloody sniper attack at a snowy love nest in Sweden and the instant revelation that our hero can be a stone-cold killer. Change that to antihero, which is really more in keeping with the American played by Clooney, a character named Jack or maybe Edward. It’s also in keeping with director Corbijn’s anti-action ethos. Corbijn creates a sense of existential dread as he spins this story about a shady guy who is completing his last assignment and can sense the walls caving in on his solitary way of life. Or maybe I’m just reading into what Jack/Edward feels; The American exposes very little about what makes this guy tick. Long, dialogue-free sequences and other taut conversations make it possible to assume several things about the character’s mental state yet know none of them for certain. It’s both the strength and the weakness of the film, which was adapted by Rowan Joffe from the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth. Kudos must go to Clooney for his continued selection of unusual roles that often call to mind Seventies antiheros and to Corbijn (the famed rock photographer whose previous film, Control, was based on the life of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis) for making the film he apparently wanted, viewer absorption be damned. Clooney also resists his usual actor’s tics to create a lean, unknowable character whose thoughts are hidden from us as he goes about his daily routine of push-ups, coffee-drinking, and gun-making. Yes, Jack/Edward seems to be a custom gun-builder by trade and assassin only by circumstance. After the showdown in Sweden, his handler (Leysen) instructs him to go to a small mountain town in Italy and await his next assignment. While there, he attracts the attention of the local priest (Bonacelli), which is good for some vague all-of-us-are-sinners conversations, and bides his time visiting a prostitute named Clara (Placido), with whom he develops an uncharacteristic emotional attachment. He and Clara eventually decide to leave together, casting away their old lives and making a fresh start. Silly man: Another tough guy felled by his weakness for a good-hearted whore. Aided by a strong soundtrack by Corbijn’s friend Herbert Grönemeyer, The American nevertheless seems more like a concept in search of a movie. The sequence early in the film of Jack/Edward traveling through a long tunnel forms a sensibility that carries throughout the film: We can journey toward the light all we want, but that doesn’t guarantee understanding or acceptance.