Anton Corbijn delivers a taut, meticulously crafted thriller with The American, bringing Martin Booth’s acclaimed novel, A Very Private Gentleman, to life. Corbijn’s stunning visuals combined with George Clooney‘s pitch-perfect performance make The American an exquisitely haunting character study. There have been comparisons to James Bond films, but The American is a bit more realistic and psychological than any James Bond film. Bond films are a bit heavier on style and action, lighter on substance, whereas with The American you get nice balance of both, plus a bit more suspense than a Bond film. Of course, the beautiful Bond-girl types don’t take away from The American either (nor does the R-rating).
Clooney plays Jack (or Edward or Mr. Butterfly, depending on who he’s talking to), a taciturn assassin and gunsmith. After being ambushed while on holiday, Jack’s handler tells him to hide out in a small Italian village while he sorts things out. Jack lies low, doubt creeping up on him as he questions whether or not he’s lost his edge. This period of soul-searching leads to some unlikely bonds being formed, one with Father Benedetto, the patriarchal, local priest, who welcomes Jack into his fold of lost lambs, and the other with Clara, an enticing brothel worker whose feelings for Jack seem to go beyond professional courtesy. Jack agrees to take on a job making a gun for the mysterious Mathilde; with paranoia mounting as his relationships with Clara and Benedetto offering him a glimpse of a better life, he decides this job will be his last, hoping it isn’t too late for him to move on.Jack’s gradual thaw from cold-hearted killer to someone much more human is made all the more watchable by Clooney’s typically affable performance. He seems to be charming swagger personified, and subtle hints of this peek out of his performance, making it very easy to go on this journey with a less-than-honorable anti-hero. Jack is very much akin to Eastwood’s “man with no name” character from the Leone westerns, which I’m sure was no accident. Throughout the film there are moments that seem very evocative of Leone’s films. Jack’s relationship with Father Benedetto is very reminiscent of the relationship between Eastwood’s character and Silvanito, the innkeeper, in A Fistful of Dollars. There’s even a moment in a barwhen they’re watching Once Upon a Time in the West. In addition to Leone, I found The American very reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni‘s The Passenger, both deal with themes of identity and escape in similar fashions. However, The American is much more thrilling than The Passenger. Corbijn ratchets up the tension far beyond that of Antonioni’s subtle existential quandary.Of course, the film doesn’t rest solely on Clooney and Corbijn. Martin Ruhe’s beautiful cinematography sets the tone for the film wonderfully. His juxtaposition of idyllic landscapes with the almost claustrophobic back rooms and alley-ways of the Italian village adds to the ebb and flow of the film. Also, the sound design is a major player in this film. There is an amazing use of completely enveloping silence at times, which I find very effective. And the supporting cast is quite good. Paolo Bonacelli as Father Benedetto is a perfect blend of poet and patriarch, a fitting moral compass for both Jack and the film.Violante Placido plays Clara, the surprising heart of the film, alluring, vivacious, captivating… in other words, Italian. And of course, the mysterious Mathilde, played by the ravishing Thekla Reuten. Mathilde seems dangerous from the start, not because of any reading you get off of her, but because you can’t read her at all. Her beauty seems like an obfuscation, there to cloud to minds of men. But much like Clooney, there’s something indelibly likable about her.So many great things about this movie. I loved The American. The only issue with it really, and this isn’t a personal qualm at all, is that it is, ironically enough, a very European movie. It’s very cerebral. Corbijn isn’t afraid to take his time. He’s very precise, less concerned with shoot-outs and car chases, more concerned that you get an idea of who this character is and what he’s all about. And sadly, that might alienate some American audiences. But, there’s only one way to find out. Go see this film. I’m definitely going to see it again.