A moody George Clooney does battle with the remnants of a summer of generally undernourished cinematic aspirations in “The American,” Dutch-born, English-domiciled Anton Corbijn’s satisfying sophomore feature. No, it’s not “Oceans 14,” not to belittle those impish pieces of entertainment (although the middle one was a water treading experience). It’s much more personal, subdued, even intimate—and obviously something one of our era’s great faces sees as an story that he could explore beyond his normal (but already high level) comic and dramatic range. Clooney was also one of the film’s producers; he has chosen wisely. Here we have a performance- and atmosphere-driven film that will provide a more-than-pleasant diversion for the Labor Day Weekend and beyond.
Corbijn, the noted portrait photographer and music video director, has crafted a European suspense thriller that some may consider slow, but the rest of us (and hopefully those of you looking for something more challenging that the explosive crap commandeering your box office dollars) see as deliberately paced. Rowan Jaffe has condensed Martin Booth’s 1990 novel “A Very Private Gentleman” into a character-driven thriller. There’s not an overwhelming wealth of dialogue, although it is well chosen. There’s plenty of visual suspense to make up for it, helped by director of photography Martin Ruhe’s simple yet effective widescreen camerawork and editor Andrew Hulme’s suspenseful work. They both worked with Corbijn when the director made a splash with his award-winning first feature “Control,” a piercing rock music biopic of Ian Curtis. The piano-based score by Herbert Grönemeyer further pushes the emotional buttons; the occasionally dissonant, uncomforting soundtrack adds to the sense of story’s uneasiness. The new film further cements the helmer’s ability to have a dynamite film without exploding any. Should you want to vacation in Sulmona in Abruzzo, Italy, which was a key filming locale, you’ll find the scenic diversions intact.
Actually, describing Clooney’s character as moody is a bit off. He’s a vigilant loner who trusts no one, not his handler Pavel (Johan Leysen), not Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) an attractive chameleon-like client (her hair seems to change color on a daily basis), or maybe the call girls who entertain him on solitary nights in small Italian towns. As Jack or Ed, or whatever name he prefers to call himself, he’s a master assassin struggling with the complex morals of his occupation. Jack is also a wanted man. It’s all left rather vague after an opening sequence in a snow-covered lakeside cabin in Sweden (I almost though I was in “Fargo” country), where he has spent the evening with the drop dead beautiful Ingrid (Irina Bjorklund). You’ll get the drift that many people, unsavory or not, don’t want him around and are willing to spend money to find him and kill him. And some of the brief encountesses he meets learn first hand of the fallout in his line of work.
During his subsequent seclusion in the back roads of Italy, he can’t even confess to the local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), as the emotion of religion is out of his practical realm. Demand for his services—he crafts many of the highly technical weapons used by others in his profession—is high, but the stress is showing as Jack has learned to be wary of every stranger, concerned about an out-of-pace footfall, or spooked by an unfamiliar shadow. And somehow he seems to be falling in love with Clara (Violante Placido), one of his call girl acquaintances. (Was rich guy Richard Gere falling for hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” the last time this happened?) They are two lonely people, stuck in isolated jobs off the social norm. Their physical attraction develops into a more intimate relationship with each passing “date.”
Sure, the ladies in the audience may appreciate the Clooney’s bare chested push-ups and chin-ups that are part of his character’s cautious regimen, but everyone will grab on to Jack’s crafty sensibilities to sniff out the off-kilter—be it a pair of lonely footprints in the snow or a glance of a too observant face at a coffee shop. In the end, it’s suspense that wins out. The film has a Hitchcockian flavor, which will delight those fans. Very cool, indeed.