“The American” stars George Clooney in something of a departure from his normal roles. There’s not much glamour to it, for starters, and none of the urbane, witty banter which the sometime World’s Sexiest Man has all but trademarked. Rather, he’s a nameless, shut-down man facing the possibility of his own death and the certainty of his lovelessness and isolation. It’s a slow-paced film reminiscent of European movies, featuring long stretches where not much happens and we simply watch someone thinking. In other words, it’s not likely to be a smash hit, but it’s unusual and challenging enough to merit a look see.
At the opening, “Jack” (Clooney) and a woman friend (Irina Bjorklund) are walking on a frozen Swedish lake when they are shot at. Jack kills the shooters—and Irina!—and heads for Rome. There he phones a contact, Pavel (Johan Leysen), who warns him to go to ground in a small Italian village: he does, but not in the one Pavel chooses, throwing away his cell phone on the way. In other words, Jack’s on the run and doesn’t want anyone to find him.
Eventually, he phones Pavel and gets a job. See, Jack is a gunsmith, making weapons to order for assassins and other killers. The present client, identifying herself as “Mathilde,” is all business. But as played by Thekla Reuten she looks more like a fashion model than a, um, hit woman. Jack gets the specs, sets the date for a demo, then goes about his work, dispassionately, expertly, and covertly.
Along the way, he meets and befriends the town priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who senses Jack’s dark past and urges him to confess, for his own good. But Jack’s other village acquaintance, a prostitute named Clara (Violente Placido), gets significantly closer to him, somewhat against Jack’s better judgment. (Their scenes together earn the movie its “R” rating, along with some sporadic violence.) The interplay between these three sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Because this isn’t an action movie, the subject notwithstanding. In fact, I want to call it an “inaction movie,” since so much of the goings on is internal. Director Anton Corbijn and screenwriter Rowan Joffe, working with Martin Booth’s novel “A Very Private Gentleman,” produce a thoughtful film, one which gives the viewer lots of time to reflect, as its central figure does. The Italian landscape and village settings are beautifully captured by cinematographer Martin Ruhe, and Herbert Gronemeyer’s original music adds to the sensual pleasure, working against the action movie clichés.
I’m guessing that “The American” won’t be a crowd-pleaser. Too bad, because the movie takes some chances, demanding that we pay attention, posing questions that it doesn’t always answer, not giving us the ending that we may want. In short, it makes us think, gives us time to consider the frame and how it’s being filled, as well as the characters and what drives them. We could use more like this.