Gunman for hire: George Clooney plays a man trapped by his vocation in ‘The American’

July 13, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
July 13, 2015

On a recent visit to a second-hand book-, CD- and DVD-store, I browsed the $2 DVD bin and noticed a movie called The American. It was from 2010 and it starred George Clooney, apparently playing a(n American) hit man on the run in Italy. I snapped it up.

The movie itself is somber and stripped down, as one might infer from the no-frills title and the two-tone movie poster, which was printed using only orange and black ink. (Or at least, the poster’s design suggests that it was made that way.)

Clooney plays an extremely reticent mercenary; he seems to be comprised of equal parts assassin, gunsmith and mystery. The character is known variously as Jack or Edward; I’ll refer to him by the first name, which the movie suggests is more genuine than the latter one.

As the film starts, Jack is enjoying a romantic interlude in a remote, snowy Swedish cabin. (“Enjoying” is a relative term — he seems reluctant even to smile at his companion.) About two minutes into the picture, someone shoots at Jack and his lover (Irina Björklund); two minutes further in, three people have been shot to death. It’s unclear why anyone wants to kill Jack, although presumably it has to do with his line of work. But one of the killings seems entirely unmotivated, and is therefore incredibly shocking, even though The American is relatively modest in its depiction of violence.

We next find Jack in Rome, where he meets a — friend? protector? ally? boss? the exact relationship is unclear — named Pavel (Johan Leysen). The gravelly voiced man tells Jack to go to a specific small Italian town and await instructions. Jack doesn’t find the community to his liking, evidently feeling too conspicuous in the tiny hamlet; he drives a few kilometers further along and settles in the bucolic mountain village of Castel del Monte.

There, Jack keeps himself in shape with a regimen of sit-ups and pull-ups, surveys his surroundings for unwanted scrutiny and otherwise tries to keep to himself.

Jack isn’t entirely successful in deflecting attention, however: He forms a tentative friendship with a local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who turns out to be concealing secrets of his own.

When Jack reluctantly accepts an assignment from Pavel, it offers a welcome distraction from his time in limbo. But the job also puts him in contact with an enticing assassin, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), who roils Jack’s emotions in ways he doesn’t like.

Jack makes the custom firearm Mathilde requests, but he finds it increasingly difficult to trust people from his old life. Instead, he’s drawn to a sweet, albeit slightly covetous, young prostitute named Clara. (Clara is played by Violante Placido, whose mother, Simonetta Stefanelli, played Apollonia in The Godfather.) Can Jack toe the straight and narrow with Clara, or is there going to be another broken heart — or worse — added to the roster of sins that the hit man adamantly refuses to confess to Father Benedetto?

The American is based on A Very Private Gentleman, a 1990 novel by the late English author Martin Booth. It was adapted for the screen by Rowan Joffe, who’s written a number of movie-thriller screenplays based on books. The director is Anton Corbijn, a Dutchman whose early film work involved a number of rock-band videos and documentaries.

The movie is a very much in the art-house tradition. The American is a work with long silences punctuated by short bursts of violence. Jack is a man of few words; by comparison, Chewbacca from Star Wars seems both chattier and more emotionally expressive.

But if Jack’s silence makes him frustrating, it makes him compelling, too. The American aptly conveys its title character’s solitude and inability to trust. The audience isn’t always sure what Jack is going to do; sometimes, it’s not clear whether he himself knows. During one luridly lit rendezvous between Jack and Clara, it’s hard to tell if he’s embracing his lover or punishing her.

The American follows a tragic arc — this the movie makes clear early on, although the viewer wonders which character will be required to pay the dearest price. The film doesn’t linger on acts of violence, and for the most part, the victims here are anonymous thugs. But the shootings leave a deep impact nonetheless — Jack may be relentless when he sets his mind to killing, but he is far from remorseless, and he seems increasingly aware that he’s caught in a trap from which escape may be impossible. The movie treats violence as a real-world phenomenon, rather than serving it up as fodder for the audience’s amusement, as Jurassic World does.

The American is hardly a crowd-pleaser. But this serious movie is one that lovers of well-crafted, intellectual thrillers would do well to watch.

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