The American is a masterful, intelligent movie built on the trust that director Anton Corbijn has in the audience’s brainpower. This well-placed faith allows us to peacefully enjoy the somber pacing and quiet details of The American, a far cry from most movies that force-feed viewers plot and character. In fact, watching The American is like reading literary fiction, particularly the kind that transports and leaves you feeling breathless. The portrait Corbijn paints is so vivid we can feel the lifeless cold of Sweden, feel the sun on our faces in the Italian countryside and smell the oil George Clooney’s hitman character uses while meticulously constructing guns. People who hit the multiplex thinking James Bond are going to be sorely disappointed by this thriller based on the 1990 novel, A Very Private Gentleman, by Martin Booth.
Speaking of gentleman, casting George Clooney as the main character, Jack, an assassin/hitman, is nothing short of perfect. Clooney is one handsome devil and is, to no surprise, an honest-to-goodness, true-blue movie star. Like Tom Hanks, Russell Crowe, Johnny Depp and a few others, Clooney effortless lends his graceful charisma to the character of Jack, whom we find at the beginning of the movie hiding out in some frozen, godforsaken area of Sweden. Hiding out might not be the right word, considering he’s spending his days and nights with his lover, Ingrid (Irina Björklund).However, his relaxation soon comes to an end when a sniper rains bullets on the couple and Jack is forced to kill the sniper and, sadly, for his protection, Ingrid. He immediately leaves Sweden and travels to Italy, where one phone call to an associate, Pavel (Johan Leysen), gets him a car, cell phone and an order to flee to the small mountainside town of Castelvecchio and await further instructions. Jack, being the ultra-paranoid assassin, disposes of the cell phone, rebuffs the location and heads to Castel del Monte.
In Castel del Monte, Jack goes by the name, Edward, and tells curious townsfolk, including an old priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), he is a freelance photographer on assignment. Pavel links Jack with a woman, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), who gives him specs on a compact, stowaway sniper rifle she wants him to custom-build for her. Jack soon starts working on the gun and, in his free time, begins a relationship with a local prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido). As Jack and Clara’s relationship deepens, and as Jack discovers the Swedes have tracked him down in Italy, his paranoia is in overdrive and he becomes suspicious of everyone, all of which leads to a frantic ending with a blurry conclusion.
The American, by title and leading actor, is deceiving. This isn’t Ocean’s Eleven or Syriana. This is very much a foreign film. It’s low on violence, heavy on nudity (tastefully done, of course), artful cinematography and copious amounts of dialogue-free scenes wherein emotion and story are told in the fashion that makes Oscar voters get hot flashes. The American isn’t so much an explosive story about the life and times of an ingenious assassin, but rather a quiet, delicate film that examines the mistakes all of us make in our lives, the worry and fear we all feel at being discovered and the hope in every human heart for happiness and a brighter future.