George Clooney, who usually uses his physical appearance and inborn charisma, makes a very different and thus perplexing turn as Jack in “The American.” The film ironically won’t please or entertain most American audiences, simply because we, as Americans, are simply less interested in constricted cinema, which isn’t necessarily a more raw or unfinished approach to filmmaking, rather than a form that flourishes in the subtle movements of the film’s characters, their choice of words, and the shots which capture the landscape – all of which are just magnified when you almost totally remove superfluous action sequences. “The American” prides itself in director Anton Corbijn’s European-esque approach to the very popular spy thriller film. However, I’m not going to act like an elitist because I myself enjoy “so bad, it’s good” cinema, but I am also quite open to different techniques, and artistic styles, which is why I enjoyed “The American.”
Jack is an assassin, who isn’t quite on speaking terms with the Swedes, who attempt to take his life during his stay in the snow-capped country following a botched job. With the help of his contact, who believes Jack is losing “his edge,” he holes up in a small Italian town, where for a short time; he is free of any threats. During this stay, he meets Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who turns out to be the friend that Jack was never allowed to have. On top of that, he becomes romantically involved with a local prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido). Through these newly found connections, Jack tells his contact that his next job will be his last, which luckily for Jack, also doesn’t involve any acts of murder. His assignment is simply to construct a compact weapon for a Belgian woman, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). However, leaving solitude proves to be extremely dangerous for Jack who quickly finds out that there are a lot people who want him dead.
“The American” has very few shootouts and none of them are as intense as you’d expect from an end of the summer blockbuster, especially one that sports a star such as Clooney. Instead, it focuses on Jack, who is extremely complex. What are interesting are the scenes in which Jack constructs the actual weapon itself. It shows the man as methodical, cold, and callous. Every nut and every screw has a set purpose for the weapon and it determines whether or not it works – just like for Jack, every single hard and heartless decision he is forced to make is in order to secure his own life. During the first scenes in Sweden, he remains much uninitiated when we are introduced to him with his lover, who he ultimately kills so that there are no witnesses following his assassination attempt. He suppresses his emotions and contrary to what we may believe, Jack does feel guilt for the woman that he killed and left dead on the virgin snow – which becomes explicitly clear in a scene during which Jack recalls her in the form of a dream.
But this is isn’t the first occurrence during which Jack shows emotion, however, the other scene is extremely subtle. During a sequence during which Mathilde and Jack practice constructing and shooting the weapon, Jack shows slight cheek movements while Mathilde constructs the gun. It’s interesting because in this scene, Jack, who himself is very interested in the entire aspect of machines, shows almost sexual preference towards his client, who proves to be just as robotic as he is.
However, what happens when one bolt is removed or in Jack’s case, one moral – the ideal never to make friends – is broken? Does the whole machine fall apart? Or is it simply reconstructed as something different? That’s what “The American” sets out to explore and it does expertly and the chemistry between the stunning Violante Placido and Clooney help it achieve just that. Once the film reaches its third act, the final scenes are just so tense and extremely heartbreaking and this level of emotion just cannot be achieved through on-screen violence.
Another brilliant performance is that of Paolo Bonacelli. As Father Benedetto, he remains very self-contained. He isn’t a caricature or extremely idiosyncratic, but he does remain as a believable friend to Jack. One particular quote that I liked by the character is when he tells Jack, “You have done much sinning and you still do.” However, Jack does not kill the priest for becoming too close to his personal business – in fact, he practically invites him in and this shows that Jack is ready for change.
Just to top it all off, there are many immaculate landscape shots that really help set the atmosphere for the film, however, I wasn’t so entertained by the actual geography of the film, rather I focused on the actual characters themselves.
Overall, “The American” succeeds because of a powerful script by Rowan Joffe, the European art-house direction of Corbijn, and the unusually restrained performance by Clooney. Will it appeal to all audiences members? Of course not, but for those looking for a more intellectually savvy spy thriller, this film will surely leave you one satisfied customer.
. . .
Follow Mariusz Zubrowski on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ItsJustMariusz.