George Clooney figures in one of his best performances as Jack (or Edward, or who knows), a skilled assassin sent to the Italian countryside to await his next–and hopefully last–assignment. His mission, as it turns out, is a simple one: supply a weapon for the beautiful and deadly Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), who has been hired to hit a target unknown to all but her. As Jack methodically takes to his task, his focus and determination both frightening in their intensity, he meets two people: a local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) bent on digging into Jack’s past, in the hope of helping the assassin atone for his sins; and Ingrid (Irina Björklund), a local prostitute, who makes the mistake of falling in love with a man of limited emotional context.
I can imagine the shock of Clooney fans, as they sat down in the theater expecting an action flick, but found themselves overwhelmed by a meditative, European-inspired thriller. This is a quiet film, where even gunfire takes on a somber tone. Jack functions merely to perform his morning workout and do his job. He’s weary, of course, and wants out; but dedication is still a virtue, and he understands that success is in the details (such as the extraordinary scene where he expertly assembles a silencer from car parts). He pays the occasional visit to Ingrid. Their early scenes together work well in a disturbing way: Jack uses her as an outlet for his aggressions, but because he’s made an emotional connection, however small, he forbids himself to rough her up during sex. They meet outside the brothel. Ingrid wants out, too. But Jack is still a killer, and Ingrid discovers that to chip away at the austere is to find something just as cold underneath. The moments with the priest are brief but profound. Jack lets on very little, but the priest intuits correctly that he’s led a singularly sinned life, and believes that confession is the way to salvation.
The American was directed by Anton Corbijn, who worked mainly in music videos before making the wonderful Control (2007), about the life of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. In that film, he worked in harsh monochromatic blacks and whites to underscore the bleakness of working-class England. Here, with cinematographer Martin Ruhe, he switches to a lively color palette to capture the rustic charm of the Italian countryside–a sharp contrast to the cold nature of the characters. Corbijn keeps his pacing even, pulling the viewer through the film on the strength of the screenplay’s compelling narrative. And the moments where we’re entirely unsure of who Mathilde’s target might be are filled with a sort of awe-inspiring suspense. There’s action, to be sure, as Jack is pursued by his own nameless assassin; but those scenes are brief and don’t overwhelm the fact that, distilled to its essence, The American is an absolutely fascinating character study.