- Directed by Anton Corbijn
- Written by Rowan Joffe
- Starring George Clooney and Violante Placido
A man on the run, the beautiful woman, the last chance for redemption: These familiar elements make the modern thriller a fairy tale for grownups, where sex, violence and guilt are the determining forces of fate. In the hands of masters -- Graham Greene in literature, or Alfred Hitchcock in film -- the thriller is a place where the adrenalin kicks of popular entertainment meet the design of serious art.
Now comes The American, a European-set film from photographer-turned-director Anton Corbijn (he made Control, about Joy Division's Ian Curtis), a thriller based on a 1990 Martin Booth novel that promises some high-toned excitement, and a chance to see the dark side of George Clooney - that is, the side that isn't being a handsome scamp or earnest humanitarian.
The first hour of The American has enough brooding ambiguity to keep hopes high. An opening scene in Sweden ends with bloodied bodies in the snow, with Clooney's character, Jack, emerging from the carnage morally scarred. Jack's a gaunt and greying hitman and custom weapon maker. His boss, Pavel (Johan Leysen), meets Jack in Rome and gives him the keys to a Fiat, telling Jack to go hide out in a medieval village in Abruzzo. "Don't make any friends, Jack," Pavel warns. "You used to know that."
Exile has its privileges. The mountain town is impeccably pretty, with cobblestoned streets, white stone buildings stacked up on hillsides, surrounded by mist-filled valleys and rugged good looks that rival Clooney's own. There are long stretches without any dialogue, as Jack does his shirtless calisthenics, shops in the market and visits cafés.
And then comes friendly old whisky priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who seems to have stepped out of a Graham Greene novel. He asks skeptical questions, feeds Jack some overly symbolic lamb stew and offers pithy insights: "You cannot deny the existence of hell," he says, "You live in it."
Hell, in central Italy, doesn't lack for much. Jack goes to a brothel and begins a torrid relationship with the prettiest prostitute there, Clara (Violante Placido), whose breasts are on display. Lust soon transforms into love and possible salvation.
Between spending time with the man of God and the woman of flesh, Jack builds a special gun for a client named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), a Bond-girl type with big hair and form-clinging clothes who talks about velocity, speed and sound diffusion with an almost erotic chill. She dubs Jack "Mr. Butterfly" when he points out a butterfly that's on the endangered species list. She doesn't know about the butterfly tattooed on his back, but we can make the connection: Jack's endangered, too.
In many ways, he's a less charming version of Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air, trapped in a profession where getting rid of people is hard on your soul. Some surviving Swedes from the opening scene pop up again but by this time we share Jack's sense of burnout. As The American eases into its last hour, we begin to see there really isn't going to be a compensating intellectual payoff for the listless pace. The movie is going through the motions, slowly.
Even the mist-filled valleys and stacked homes on the hillside, which should suggest a timelessness which contrasts with Jack's temporal predicament, just look like travel agents' posters, though perhaps that's not accidental. According to Focus Pictures, the filmmakers went to some trouble to shoot in Abruzzo (also the setting of the novel) to stimulate the local economy and encourage tourism after the devastation of the 2009 earthquake. No wonder then, the dread in the film is so quickly forgotten. What remains is an urge to fly to Italy, rent an apartment in a medieval city and invent your own adventure.