Clooney as an assassin? Sounds like the recipe for a slam-bang action film with a dollop of cool, but that’s not what director Anton Corbijn has created with the very European The American. With the plethora of mindless action films in the last few months, however, I really liked the slow, thoughtful pace of this surprisingly action-free action movie.
Clooney plays Jack, a gunsmith, craftsman and assassin. More a character study than anything else, the film starts in Dalarna, Sweden, where Jack has retreated with his lover Ingrid (Irina Björklund). Unnamed bad guys have tracked him down, however, and he unemotionally kills the team sent to kill him, then wipes all traces of his stay and runs to Castel del Monte, a quaint little Northern Italian town just outside of Rome.
Still loosely connected with his unnamed agency, Jack is given the assignment of creating a powerful, silent sniper rifle for the beautiful and equally cold Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). In scenes reminiscent of the terrific Day of the Jackal, Jack methodically builds the custom rifle and finds a secluded meadow alongside a stream to test and calibrate the instrument.
Seeking female companionship, he becomes close with Clara (Violante Pacido), a beautiful hooker who becomes pivotal to his character development: how can he allow himself to feel anything for her when his whole life has been about shutting down his emotions?
I really enjoyed The American, though I felt that the ending was flawed and distressingly cliché for such a unique film with an otherwise retro noir feel. Clooney is his cool, methodical self, an actor perfectly suited to his role, and the Italian countryside was worth the price of the ticket alone. If you’re looking for a Hollywood blockbuster action film, move along. If you want to enjoy a thoughtful character study about an assassin trying to find his humanity, however, I recommend The American highly.
One of the most interesting characters in the film is Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli). A friendly parish priest who is clearly a long-time fixture in the village, he befriends Jack and they become friends, though Jack is never quite sure of his intentions and treads carefully on their conversations. Benedetto represents Jack’s conscience and as such the tenuousness of their relationship works perfectly in the story.
Early in the film Benedetto says “You’re an American, you all think you can escape history”, a foreshadowing of Jack’s life and his experiences in Italy. Benedetto’s role in the film is deliberately ambiguous and even when the end credits roll it’s unclear whether he was involved with one or more of the shadow organizations or just a simple village priest.
There are some major gaps in the storyline that I was willing to ignore in the interest of watching Clooney’s journey, notably that he tells everyone in Castel del Monte that he’s a photographer, but only once in the weeks he’s in the tiny village do we see him with a camera, taking pictures. Locals may be unsophisticated, but they’re not stupid, especially in small villages where the gossip can travel like wildfire. He also figures out the relationship between Father Benedetto and local auto mechanic Fabio (Filippo Timi) ridiculously quickly.
Jack works for an unspecified organization that orders assassinations and seems to have limitless resources. His direct contact is Pavel (Johan Leysen), but other than to coordinate logistics, Pavel doesn’t seem to have much of a role in the story, in a manner reminiscent of a mafioso don. Given the Italian setting, this might not be accidental.
Near the end of the film, Father Benedetto says to Jack “You cannot doubt the existence of hell: you live in it,” a sentiment that is the crux of The American. However fast we run, however much we protect ourselves from our past, our decisions and the fragility and imperfections of others, we’re all still here together. For some of us it might well be our personal hell, and escaping is a darn hard proposition.
I have to say that I found the ending unsatisfying, but as with the last scene of Inception, there’s sufficient ambiguity that perhaps it wasn’t as cliché and obvious as it seemed. I’d like to think so, because I really enjoyed The American.