Slow-Burning Drama in ‘The American’
George Clooney as anti-hero
The film opens in a
remote, snow-covered corner of Sweden.
The camera stares at a cabin under the stars and pine trees before inching
slowly forward toward the warm glow of the windows. The deliberate pace is an
alert: Jack (Clooney) is enjoying an intimate interlude by the fire with his
girlfriend, but something wrong is afoot. Next day, as the couple strolls
across a frozen pond, Jack’s eyes sharpen when he notices unfamiliar prints in
the snow. Ready for the ambush about to come, he takes down the assassin. And
then, telling his shocked girlfriend to go to the cabin and call the police, he
quickly executes her with a single bullet to the back of the head. The happy
idyll has passed. Regrets? Jack has a few.
We never learn exactly for
whom Jack is working or the identity of his taciturn handler. Jack’s
nationality is American; evidently, he is a well-paid killer, a professional
with guns of every caliber who knows his way with the dangerous trade of
surveillance and pursuit. To get him out of harm’s way, his handler sends him
to a remote Italian village nestled in cloud-draped mountains. The camera’s
vulture-eye view reveals serpentine roads threading upward through a patchwork
of fields and rooftops. The town is an ancient place of winding cobblestone
alleys and terraces. Jack dwells there in a Spartan apartment, doing pull-ups
and awaiting his next assignment.
Clooney plays Jack with
the heavy, wary eyes of a man without trust. Steeled against danger, he
suspects that death lurks in every doorway and has every reason to fear the
worst, given the occupation he has chosen. The dialogue is terse and pregnant
with meanings left unsaid. A martial-looking tattoo with a Latin motto suggests
Jack learned his trade in special forces. But nothing is certain about his past
or future. As the friendly, inquisitive local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) tells
him: “You are American and you think you can escape history. You live for the
The priest and a
prostitute called Clara (Violante Placido) are his only companions in the town.
After easing the weight of lust, Jack finds himself strangely devoted to her.
Even a killer needs a life to save. He never confesses to the priest, but seems
drawn to the idea of unburdening himself if only by letting his guard down an
inch or two with the kindly, perceptive cleric. But on the street Jack casts a
wary glance over his shoulder and scrutinizes every passing car. He knows that
someone has come to get him.
Director Anton Corbijn (whose career began in 1980s music videos) filmed The American with the beautifully composed, unhurried pace of a ’70s art house picture. The interior life of Jack is undisturbed by chattering dialogue. The many wordless stretches give rise to the imagination and each scene is etched in high relief. The American’s drama builds slowly from Jack’s anxiety and reaches an operatic crescendo at the climax. Will Jack be able to escape the life he has chosen and the hard bargains he has made? He ponders the words of the local priest: “Hell is a place without love. You live in it.”n