The American, thriller, in English and Italian with subtitles, rated R, 105 minutes, Regal Stadium 14, 1.5 chiles
Anton Corbijn is Dutch, and The American plays as if he were convinced that he was working in full European auteur mode when he made it. There are starkly beautiful Swedish winterscapes and winding roads through the Italian countryside; there are medieval hill towns and lovely naked women. There is a quiet hero, tough as cured leather, and beset by inner doubts. There is very little said.
When there is dialogue, it has the effect of making you grateful for the silences, so that works out to be a good thing.
The hero is Jack. He’s the American, the one after whom the movie is named. There is no particular reason for him being American. The movie might have been more effective if he’d been played by someone less familiar to U.S. audiences, like Mads Mikkelsen ( Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre), only then it would have to be called “The Dane.”
But Jack is played by George Clooney, so the die is cast. And when George Clooney is the anchor of your movie, it probably is not going to work out as an auteurist European art film. Hollywood stars have an aura of familiarity and glamour that they bring to the party. I like George Clooney. But he’s not a brooding loner. And here, deprived for the most part of speech and deprived fully of charm and personality, he uses up the movie’s oxygen without ever exhaling any of it.
This movie is so serious about its pretensions that none of it makes any sense. Sense would appear to have been banned from the project as deliberately as dialogue and personality. Lots of people get shot, but we seldom have much of a clue why. We open in Sweden, where some mysterious Swedes are out to get Jack, for reasons we never learn. The Swedish girl who has displayed her rump in a contemplative opening scene before getting dressed to go out with him for a walk in the snow is startled to find that Jack carries a gun. “You have a gun?” she exclaims. “Why would you have a gun?” In real life, that might be a reasonable question. But in a movie as divorced from reality as this one, the answer can only be, as George Mallory said of Mount Everest, “Because it’s there.” It’s an existential fact. The movie is young, and there are still a lot of people to be killed.
Jack is soon off to Rome, where he meets up with Pavel (Johan Leysen), who appears to be his handler, but in what cause or organization is anybody’s guess. Jack is feeling testy, having already had to kill a friend, which seems to have put him in a bad mood. Pavel tells him Rome is a little too hot for him right now — we don’t know why — and gives him a car and tells him to go cool his heels in Abruzzo and await instructions. “Above all,” Pavel warns drily, “don’t make any friends, Jack. You used to know that.”
So off Jack goes, through the beautiful winding roads of the Italian countryside, to Abruzzo. There he makes friends with the local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), and with Clara (Violante Placido), a working girl in the local brothel. She is gorgeous, and the friendship soon ripens into something deeper. At one point she introduces him to her friend, who is almost as beautiful as she is, and you perk up, wondering in what kinky direction this aspiring art film might turn, but no, Jack is not that sort of American. The point of that scene seems to be that the two girls are going to an American movie so the friend can work on her English, and for her sake, one only hopes this is not the movie they are going to see.
Jack also meets, but does not become friendly with, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), a woman with the looks of a Vogue model and the portfolio of a hired assassin. The contact has been set up by Pavel. In time-honored espionage drill, Jack and Mathilde sit at adjoining tables in an outdoor café, not looking at each other, communicating in staccato monosyllables about a gun she needs him to make for her, to be used on a hit.
For the rest of the movie, Jack makes the gun, working methodically and silently, taking only occasional respite to kill someone or make love to Clara. On whom will the gun be used? What’s it all about? You may find yourself wondering idly, to pass the time, but there’s no tangible building of suspense, although this is the sort of movie in which bit players over whom the camera passes casually give meaningful, suspicious glances, and motor scooters backfire like pistol reports.
Jack has a butterfly on his back, among the several tattoos that adorn his often bared torso. This, and a little business with an actual butterfly, earn him the nickname “Mr. Butterfly” from Mathilde. This has got to mean something. Does he float like a butterfly and sting like a bee? Is it the “butterfly effect”? Or is it just a hint of a fragile sweet softness at the core of this mysterious American?
Who is Jack? He doesn’t seem to be an actual hit man, although he is free with the killing. He’s making a gun for someone else to use, at the instructions of a third party who may be working for someone else, but we will never know the motives or identities of any of these people (unless they’re spelled out in Martin Booth’s novel, A Very
Private Gentleman, upon which this movie is based). In the end, of course, we do at least learn the answers to a few of the questions. Very few. And they still don’t make sense.
Just because: Violante Placido and George Clooney