REVIEW: The American [2010]

“I don’t think God is very interested in me Father”

Martin Ruhe, as he did also shoot Control, but knowing Anton Corbijn’s music videos and photography, I have to give him the credit for his gorgeously composed The American. Based upon Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman, Rowan Joffe’s script deals with an assassin in hiding from a Swedish contingent of killers looking to take him out. It’s a thriller revolving around a hitman, yet you won’t be seeing wall-to-wall action. Instead, Corbijn gives us carefully constructed frames of quiet calm despite the ever-present paranoia residing in George Clooney’s Jack—that constant knowledge of surroundings, new sounds, and peculiar details, all of which could be the last thing he notices before a bullet enters the back of his head. We are shown his darting eyes, his raised ears, and his bottomless well of patience amidst the stark white of snow-covered mountains and the vibrant stillness of a hidden river. This film isn’t about his job or his survival. At its core, The American is about one man’s redemption of soul; stumbling upon love, and as a result God, without ever actually looking for either.

Jack is at the tail end of his career, still able to get the job done and a consummate professional in his duties, but that edge of a youthful soldier wanes against the discovery of his impending mortality. His is a life of solitude, devoid of friendship besides the handler feeding him new assignments or the whores he pays for pleasure. Living by a code of immorality, making weapons for contract killers or doing the trigger pulling, all the money he receives in compensation goes nowhere. Jack travels and sees the world in the small chucks of time allotted between business opportunities, soon arriving in Italy, not for vacation, but for cover. Staying in a small town and waiting—you’d have to be a special kind of person to not go stir crazy fast—a cautious existence eventually decides to break itself free, especially after so long a period of time killing remorselessly, both bad guys and the innocents caught in the middle. He can call his wintry lover Ingrid (Irina Björklund) a friend and shake off any guilt for what happened to her. He can even blame her as the source for the discovery of his whereabouts by murderers. But what he can no longer do, probably much to his own surprise, is forget her.

And those feelings of sorrow begin to eat away; causing tiny explosions of rage even towards the woman he seeks solace with after hours. We can see a good man hidden beneath the questionable ethics. The simple fact he refuses to lay with anyone but the prostitute Clara (Violante Placido), leaving the brothel if she is absent, shows a sense of caring in a horribly skewed sort of way. But when she seizes on it, partaking in a little post-coital therapy session, the lone Jack comes out, matter-of-factly telling her not to pretend. He knows exactly why he’s there; their exchange is for him to receive pleasure, not give it. Clara knows that’s not true, though, we all see it in his body language and voice—he has feelings for her, whether real or projected following Ingrid’s death. He’s grown soft and cracks are beginning to show. He’ll acquire the pieces for an automatic weapon, he’ll even manufacture a makeshift decibel suppressor as his customer requests, but there now appears to be a second-guessing underlying every action. One doesn’t befriend a man of the cloth such as Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) because of a lack of wanting to be saved. Who else, after all, is in the rare position to truly show how every man sins—poor decisions are not solely made by the evil.

It’s this discovery made during the almost two-hour duration that stays with you. We follow a deeply troubled man whose entire life has been built upon a foundation of death and destruction. One can say he’s done nothing that didn’t deserve doing, but who’s to say the same effect couldn’t have been reached peacefully? It’s the little things that slowly chip away at Jack’s steely demeanor. The realization that his idea of a picnic is to meet a client to prove the quality of his firearms, chilling wine just to dump into the grass for the Italian police to find and disregard as a loving couple’s tryst, or that forbidden love doesn’t have to destroy the bonds sowed by its pull, learned from the bold advances of Clara seizing on his affections and believing them as fact, begin to bring an idea of humanity back into his heart. What is stopping this man from packing up and leaving to start anew? There is nothing, save this one last job brought forth by Pavel (Johan Leysen) while in hiding from the Swedes. The details of the hit may be vague, but it’s never questioned. All that’s left to do is exchange the gun for cash with the cold-blooded beauty Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). Yet, even as he may not know who the target is, we the viewers catch on early to what he is actually building.

Jack’s surprise catharsis is front and center, therefore making it Clooney’s task to sell the subtle conflict playing tug-of-war within. You never doubt his extreme precision in a field with numerous health hazards and infinite amounts of enemies, but at the same time believe his capacity for compassion. When he’s with Placido, there exists a palpable sense of brain saying walk away and heart replying with a stronger call to love. Perhaps it’s the Catholic Italian town entering his body and transforming his very being or it could be as easy as a feeling of fatigue, a yearning to literally stop and smell the roses for once. Because of this metamorphosis, Jack begins to break all his rules, mixing business with pleasure and no longer being able to quite see the distinction. But through it all, if he loses his edge or not, he always remains vigilant and cautious, never sure who to trust. And Corbijn portrays that feeling of isolation with the sparse locales and the deliberate pacing, only enhancing the rush of suspense once conflict rears its head. The pacing is taut in its drawn out machinations of tone and style over actual substance, culminating towards a poetic finale releasing him from the chains he himself has spun. The American is lyrical in its orchestration, always more mood than action—a welcome reprieve from the blood-soaked tales of assassins usually seen onscreen.

The American 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] George Clooney stars in the title role of director Anton Corbijn’s suspense thriller THE AMERICAN, a Focus Features release. Photo: Giles Keyte.
[2] Violante Placido (left) and George Clooney (right) star in director Anton Corbijn’s suspense thriller THE AMERICAN, a Focus Features release. Photo: Giles Keyte.
[3] Irina Bjorklund stars as Ingrid and George Clooney stars as Jack in Focus Features’ The American (2010)

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