The American

Sullen hitman, played by the increasingly talented George Clooney, wants out of the game.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Sep. 7, 2010

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Some people call him Edward. To others, he goes by Jack. He looks a lot like George Clooney, only thinner. Don’t expect much in the way of backstory regarding the protagonist of Anton Corbijn’s The American. The title covers just about all he’s willing to reveal.

A triumph of form over content, Corbijn’s curiously affecting mood piece follows Clooney’s haunted, aging assassin for a couple weeks as he hides out in the Italian mountains of Abruzzo. Certain unsavory gentlemen of Swedish descent are after him for reasons never explained. A pre-credits sequence establishes that they’re dangerous. The scene closes with a queasy sucker-punch illustrating that Clooney’s even deadlier, but a closeup indicates he also might finally be growing a conscience.

“You’re losing your edge,” lectures his contact, a malevolent prune played by Johan Leysen. The sparse dialogue, adapted by screenwriter Rowan Joffe from Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, sticks to such hard-boiled hitman tropes that it sometimes teeters on the edge of self-parody. Indeed, The American’s storyline—to the extent that there is one—feels like a collection of antiquated riffs and moldy cliches.

After all, here we’ve got a weary hired gun who wants out. But first, he just needs to finish this one last job. (In the history of crime fiction, has there ever been “one last job” that goes even remotely according to plan?) On the run in Italy, he’s hired to build a high-powered weapon for a mysterious client (Thekla Reuten). For some reason, she requires a long-range rifle that works like a machine gun, but Clooney knows better than to ask why she needs it. She might want to kill him. She also seems to be coming on to him, but that could just be because he looks like George Clooney.

We’ve also got the classic Whore With a Heart of Gold in ravishing Violante Placido, who stars as Clara, the sweetest girl at the brothel who gets a crush on Clooney while making goo-goo eyes at the silly butterfly tattoo on his back. Eventually she stops charging him and asks him out on dates. She might have ulterior motives for this. Or it also could just be because he looks like George Clooney.

There’s even a jovial priest, over-played by Paolo Bonacelli, taking a shine to our sullen protagonist and hanging around spout aphorisms like: “You cannot doubt the existence of hell. You live in it. It is a place without love.” By all rights, The American should be laughable. And yet still, the damn picture casts a spell.

Wearing his influences on his sleeve, former music-video director Corbijn aims for the soul-sick malaise of ’70s European art-house cinema. There’s a bit of Jean-PierreMelville here, a dash of Wim Wenders’ The American Friend there, and more than a passing nod to Michelangelo Antonioni—particularly The Passenger. Sergio Leone himself gets name-checked by the owner of a cafe in which Clooney sullenly watches Once Upon A Time In The West in what looks like an Edward Hopper painting with an HDTV stuck on the wall.

Synced to a different time signature than other contemporary thrillers, The American is all long silent spells and existential dread. Cinematographer Martin Ruhe paints a lush canvas of verdant riverbanks and dim, foreboding streets at night. The anxious stillness gets under your skin.

George Clooney isn’t just getting more annoyingly handsome as the years go on, the sonofabitch is also becoming a better actor—simultaneously bolder and more restrained. The American calls to mind his heartbroken astronaut in Steven Soderbergh’s underrated Solaris remake. Showing no trace of his gregarious movie-star persona, Clooney is gaunt and haunted. Often banished to the far corner of the widescreen frame, he methodically scans every surroundings for threats, never at rest. Playing a man with no past and no future, he lives only in the increasingly precarious present. Corbijn’s impeccably controlled filmmaking hammers home the awful loneliness of this condition.

Stubbornly withholding genre satisfactions, The American is more of a vibe than a story. The ache stays with you for days after the credits roll.

Or it could also be because it stars George Clooney.

Grade: B+
Director: Anton Corbijn
Starring: George Clooney
Running time: 103 minutes

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