Silver Screen: The American ****
The posters and ads for The American suggest a paranoid thriller that evokes the classics of the 1970s. And it does make good on its promise, but the movie owes as much to meditative European fare of the seventies, particularly Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, as it does to more straightforward spy flicks like The Manchurian Candidate, Three Days of the Condor, and The Parallax View.
The film is as quiet and deliberate as its title character, a Yankee assassin abroad who calls himself Jack (George Clooney). The consequences of his past— consequences about which viewers know next to nothing— catch up to him while he lays low in Sweden with his girlfriend (Irina Bjö rklund), and he makes a snap decision.
At the behest of his handler Pavel (Johan Leysen), Jack departs Sweden to lay low in a small town in the Italian countryside. He rechristens himself Edward, rents a small apartment, and does his best to remain anonymous. Despite his best efforts, though, he strikes up a friendship with a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and becomes entangled with a local prostitute (Violante Placido). Then Pavel contacts him with the details of a very simple job— simpler, presumably, than what went down in Sweden. Edward is to meet with Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) and custom design an assassin’s rifle for her.
Though all the elements are in place for a conventional thriller— haunted antihero, mystery woman, looming assassination of an unknown target— first-time feature-film director Anton Corbijn, working with screenwriter Rowan Joffe to adapt Martin Booth’s 1990 novel A Very Private Gentleman, isn’t interested in anything so plot-driven. The conspiracies here all exist on the psychological level, the hidden truths and secret alliances established not to trick the rest of the world but to keep the truth about one man away from himself. It evokes the spirit of Graham Greene, with its disillusioned protagonist adrift abroad and thrust into a conflict in which he has no personal stake, but it’s even chillier than that.
It’s worth noting that Edward, upon arriving in Italy, claims to be a photographer, the same occupation as Jack Nicholson’s character in The Passenger. And like Nicholson’s weary war photographer, Clooney’s character slips into an identity not his own in the hopes that living someone else’s life will save him from the pain of living his own.
Clooney pulls this off wonderfully. His steely eyes and stainless-steel-colored hair lend him the qualities of a machine, and Edward is nothing if not methodical. But it’s the humanity stirring, very slightly, just beneath the surface that interests us, and that same humanity may lead to his undoing. This is not something the old, nod-your-head-and-bat-your-eyelashes George Clooney of E.R. fame could ever have pulled off, and it’s a testament to his range as an actor that he is as convincing as a tightly coiled spring, silent and motionless but ready to explode into action, as he is playing motormouthed lunatics in Coen brothers’ movies.
The American isn’t a perfect film— philosophically, it’s Graham Greene-light, and though it sometimes suggests Antonioni, it’s never that good— but it’s damn impressive: cerebral, willfully distant, and suitable for the mainstream without ever pandering to some imagined idea of a mainstream audience. That, I suppose, makes the title more than a little ironic.