(by Dustin Putman
"The American" is so quiet, so still, and yet so tonally intoxicating that even the sudden sounds of a gun silencer and a sputtering Vespa motor are enough to make the viewer jump edgily in his or her seat. Highly influenced with European sensibilities, the film—an adaptation of the novel "A Very Private Gentleman" by Martin Booth, directed by Anton Corbijn (2007's "Control")—may prove too austere and calculated for mainstream stateside audiences. Save for occasional bursts of violence, the pacing is slow and deliberate, its frame of mind ruminative in order to match that of the elusive title character, an assassin named Jack and Edward (George Clooney) whose identity depends on whether he needs to lie or not. Suspense is craftily built, but unconventional in its low-key treatment, reliant on a stranger's mere footsteps in pursuit amidst labyrinthine cobblestone walkways to get one's heart racing. Article continues below
When Jack/Edward narrowly survives an attack in the snow-covered field behind his Swedish chalet, he has no choice but to do away with girlfriend Ingrid (Irina Bjorklund) after she learns too much. It's a decision that haunts both his sleeping and waking hours, and one that he tries to escape when he is instructed by boss Pavel (Johan Leysen) to lay low in the picturesque Italian hamlet of Castelvecchio as he awaits his next assignment. Smelling a rat, Jack/Edward instead settles in twelve miles down the road in Castel Del Monte, ensconcing himself in his surroundings as he poses as a professional photographer, befriends and seeks guidance from priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), and teaches sort-of protégé Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) the ins and outs of the business when she arrives at the nearby train station. Jack/Edward has no plans to continue on the course he's on, but he also knows of the sacrifice such a decision could prove. With suspicions at an all-time high and pretty much anyone possibly in cahoots with those that want him dead, he is soon torn by his emerging feelings for Clara (Violante Placido), a beautiful prostitute whose heart is either made of gold or charcoal—he hasn't figured out which yet.
Provocatively, all of the characters in "The American" are loners who seemingly have no family to speak of. They're all lost spirits floating about, trying to find purpose in a place that, for an outsider like Jack/Edward, could be right out of a fairy tale. Director Anton Corbijn shows little interest in the machinations of his plot, and it's just as well. Where the picture excels, anyway, is in its visual lushness and moody craftsmanship. Even when one's connection to the characters is distant, the very mise en scene itself remains emotionally vital, almost magical. A seeming cousin of both 1973's "Lisa and the Devil" and 2008's "In Bruges," the journey taken by Jack/Edward as he walks among the stucco buildings, curving stairways, mountainous slopes and ancient architecture is meditative and dreamlike, an elegiac wanderlust. One stunning aerial shot looking directly down upon the town, turning its buildings, streets and tunnels into a maze—that would make Jack/Edward the rat—is aesthetically divine, but also thematically suggestive of more. By contrast, an ongoing butterfly-equals-freedom motif is a bit too on the nose to work as intended, but it's a small detail that nonetheless show the level of ambition Corbijn is working on.
There is definite chemistry between George Clooney (2009's "Up in the Air") and Italian actress Violante Placido, making her auspicious English-language debut, a connection that encapsulates the sexual with the soulful. As tightly wound as it often is, the screenplay by Rowan Joffe (2007's "28 Weeks Later") is of little help in this particular respect. Sure, both parties see the other as their way out of their current regrettable circumstances, but Clara should also stand as Jack's/Edward's last shot at salvation. As Father Benedetto tells him in one stirring scene, "You have to believe in hell; you live in it. No love." Indeed, Jack/Edward desperately wants a new life, and maybe Clara is his answer at putting away his past and finding happiness—if, that is, she's not double-crossing him—but Joffe fails to provide them much in the way of substantial interplay. Their relationship is effective more for what it symbolizes than for what is legitimately there between them. Besides, Jack/Edward has more on his mind than just a love affair.
George Clooney is terrific in the role of Jack/Edward, unsentimental but not without feeling, a man who has made many mistakes and done many terrible things, and knows it. Classically handsome but looking every one of his forty-nine years, there is an aged solemnity among the creases of Clooney's face that only deepens the internal war he's bidding. In every scene, the actor holds the screen with the best of them, a modern-day Cary Grant. As Clara, Violante Placido has a tough role in that she has to play it close enough to the vest so that the audience continues to question her motives, but not so much that she comes off as icy and we stop liking her. Placido gets this balancing act just right. In a key supporting turn, Paola Bonacelli (2006's "Mission: Impossible III") is both understated and fascinating as Father Benedetto, a man of the cloth with his own share of problems hidden intriguingly just out of frame.
The reality of what "The American" is will likely not be what potential viewers are expecting. This is not some high-octane remake of "The Bourne Supremacy" or a 007 rip-off, but a reflective, independent-minded study of one man's path toward what he hopes to be a release from his personal prison of guilt. Beneath that is, indeed, an intensity of which the strongest of thrillers are only able to conceive. The one-last-mission element of its story is old-hat, but the fluid filmmaking, aided immeasurably by gorgeous on-location shooting in Sweden and Italy, Martin Ruhe's remarkably sleek photography, Andrew Hulme's quixotic editing, and Herbert Gronemeyer's pulsing Bernard Herrmann-esque music score, is enough to make the whole thing feel new again.