A film review by Craig J. Koban September 8, 2010


2010, R, 95 mins.


Jack / Edward: George Clooney / Pavel Johan Leysen / Clara: Violante Placido / Fr. Benedetto: Paolo Bonacelli / Ingrid: Irina Björklund

Directed by Anton Corbijn / Screenplay by Rowan Joffe, based on the novel "A Very Private Gentleman" by Martin Booth

Too many familiar elements hold back Anton Corbjin’s THE AMERICAN from greatness.  This assassin thriller is made up of spare parts and ingredients from many other similar genre films: the world weary, battle hardened, emotionally vacant and obsessively focused hitman/killer that grows tired of his lifestyle and tries to redeem himself from his past sins, but only after he has finished the obligatory “final mission” of his career.  Oh, also throw in the hooker with the proverbial “heart of gold” – a sinner in her own respects - that will introduce herself into his fractured and morose life to eventually serve as a beacon of positive change for the man.  In the end, they both will act as catalysts for each other to seek out new respective lives; love will psychologically rescue them both. 

THE AMERICAN intimately invites us into its compact and grim world while it, oddly enough, holds viewers back at an uncomfortable distance.  The film is an absolute bravura exercise in restrained filmmaking economy: this is not another one of those summertime, dime-a-dozen action-thrillers that hyperactively pulsate with seizure-inducing editing and camera work and a thunderously frantic pace designed for viewers with A.D.H.D.  No, THE AMERICAN – unlike so many over thrillers of its kind – demonstrates a leisurely, casual, and exemplary well-crafted and patient eye for narrative build up and suspense.  It generates tension and an evocative sense of mood not through visual gimmicks and high-octane action, but rather on a sparse aesthetic style and a rather slow and methodical unfolding of its story to foster our involvement.  Yet, for as efficiently tailored and painstakingly assembled as the film is, THE AMERICAN is still a work that is tainted with rudimentary formulas and conventions.  It paradoxically looks and feels both new and old.   

However, the one redeeming aspect of this redemption thriller is the presence of George Clooney, who has time and time again revealed himself to not only be one of the biggest stars of the movies, but also one of its more dependable and authentic performers.  I have always lamented on how much focus critics give Clooney for playing ultra suave, cool, and collected men that ooze charisma (the actor can certainly do this in his sleep), but he never gets as much attention for how rock solid he is for inhabiting deeply flawed and tragically internalized personas.  Looking at recent films like MICHAEL CLAYTON, SYRIANA, and UP IN THE AIR you gain an immediate sense of how strong he is at playing parts that have refined facades, but nonetheless hide lonely and deeply introverted psyches: these men are empty vessels that may or may not be able to liberate themselves from their own isolation and despair. 

Clooney continues to show how incredibly proficient he is at dialing into these types of characters with an understated and subdued edge and menace.  He has perhaps not played such an uncomfortable, unethical, and coldly unemotional character as he does here in THE AMERICAN.  He's a hitman/weapons manufacturer that lacks most of his characteristic Hollywood charm and appeal and instead is a disturbingly gloomy and dark figure that goes about his life as an assassin with an unhealthy fixation and detached edge.  He is a man that exists primarily within the dour and meaningless bubble of his own life of ruthlessly killing people: he has no real emotional ties to anyone and shows no real passion for anything outside of his vocation.  All he knows, and knows with a bitter and steely eye certainty, is the clandestine art of execution.  Much like his character from UP IN THE AIR, Clooney’s assassin here slowly comes to the realization that his life is one of negated significance with each passing day.  Late in the game – perhaps a bit too late – both characters try to crawl back out of their pits of depravation to reclaim their lost humanity. 

The assassin in question is named Jack and after an introductory scene that ends with macabre results he decides to lay low in Italy to evade a series of Swedes that are out to kill him.  At the request of his boss, Pavel (played with a gravel-voiced and austerely commanding Johan Leysen), Jack is told to hold up in the Italian villa of Sulmona where he is to wait for his next orders and assignment.  When he is not frequenting the coffee shops, restaurants, and sites of his new home, Jack has to find a way to collect the necessary parts – under the radar of the authorities and townsfolk– to create a made-to-order weapon for a special client.  He meets this client, Mathilde (the slinky and sensually dangerous Thekla Reuten) at a nearby café and she gives him all of the specs she desires, which Jack agrees to with little hesitation. 

During his initial gun manufacturing mission Jack inadvertently makes a few friends, of sorts: he interacts with a local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) that slowly begins to act as a moral compass for him (the Father has his suspicions as to what Jack actually does for a living, even though Jack remains aloof with the priest’s frequent inquiries into the matter).  As much as he tries to evade the priest, Jack has a tougher time staying away from a local whore named Clara (Violante Pacido, pulsating raw carnality) that he meets on his frequent trips to the local brothel.  His early visits show little hope for a romantic fling between the pair (“I’m here for my pleasure, not yours,” he impersonally declares to her during one evening), but he begins to find himself more and more emotionally drawn to this woman.  Clara, despite her own ethically questionable line of work, emerges as a sweet and caring figure in Jack’s hollow existence and it is through her compassion towards him and the priest's insistence on the power of confession to heal all wounds that sends Jack on a road to possible redemption.  The problem with his emotional journey is that he must embark on "one last mission" for his boss, which proves to have an added level of complexity that may impede his ability to escape with Clara forever. 

Corbijn, a Dutch photographer and director, creates such sumptuously stunning location scenery in the way he frames the exquisite Italian villa, which has both an aura of hospitality while evoking an uneasy sensation of the unknown.  Corbijn also creates an opening prologue to the film rich with nail biting tension and intrigue that, much like the rest of the film, is established with a somber atmosphere and a deliberate sense of visual control.  In it Clooney’s Jack is in the middle of the arctic terrain of Sweden and manages to not only eliminate two hired hoods that were going to murder him, but he also ruthlessly murders the woman he was sleeping with beforehand  (she was a completely innocent victim, but Jack is too sadistically withdrawn to leave any witnesses).  The emotional frostiness of this scene – launching Jack as persona that’s unflinchingly uncompassionate – mirrors its environment.   

The film also creates a precisely examined look at Jack’s daily life under a fastidious microscope, which results in some of THE AMERICAN’s most compelling and hypnotic moments.   We have scenes that focus of Jack’s intense isolation from the outside world with a level of anaesthetizing monotony (whether it be in showing daily exercise drills in his minimally furnished flat to the ingenious ways that he finds the necessary parts to construct a weapon and its noise muzzling silencer), but they are all crucial for showcasing this man as one of compulsive ritual and habit.  Even though the film has a decided European flavor and considerably beautiful and expansive production values, THE AMERICAN is a taut and tightly confined cogitation on how pathetically diminutive Jack’s world is: he keeps his life so compactly secure and secretive from all others around him, but its suffocating nature begins to catch the better of him.  The manner Corbijn captures this lonely and astringent essence alongside Clooney’s scrupulously under cranked and inwardly focused performance really makes the film really stand out. 

Unfortunately, I just wish that THE AMERICAN didn't play out its underlining "love will save a killer's soul" so perfunctorily.  Violante Pacido’s prostitute – although highly pleasing to look at – is painted with too many broad strokes (she’s an angel-in-the-waiting to help ease Jack out of his existentialist career/life crisis, but she is not really defined much more beyond that of a convenient plot point).  Also, Jack’s relationship with the priest feels more manufactured for the necessity of driving the story forward than one that feels authentic and could have been developed more thoroughly (the film is a narratively short 90-plus minutes, which leaves many of its relationship dynamics feeling unfinished).  Finally, the final mission that Jack takes on culminates in a fairly predictable manner, although I was fond for how the film concludes on a final moment and shot that approaches poetic and soulful tragedy.  THE AMERICAN is good medicine for those that have grown weary with the onslaught of overproduced, exasperatingly action heavy and mindless thrillers that Hollywood lazily churns out as of late: it’s so estimably retrained on a discreet performance, directorial, and psychological level.  However, THE AMERICAN would have been that much better served to us if it didn’t regurgitate old story arcs and themes, which makes the final product modestly successful, but a somewhat mixed bag artistic effort nonetheless.

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