Despite the poster which seems to promise an action-packed summer thriller of the international-spy-assassin variety, The American is very quiet. Silence echoes through the film. It reverberates. The American is interested in how things operate: how people operate, how deals are made, how relationships develop, how guns are assembled, how small towns have their own rhythms. Because it is so interested in these things, the film takes time to linger. It does not rush. It stays put, a very bold move in today’s fast-paced world, especially in a summer thriller starring one of the biggest movie stars in the world. The film has a very specific eye. The plot is minimal. There are very few action scenes, and even then, there is a quietness to them, an inevitability, that gives them a greater impact than any shoot-out hi-speed chase ever could. For the most part, we get Clooney, alone, thinking. This is not thinking of the kind we normally see in thrillers, where the hero is forced to think quickly, under the gun, making split decisions as he runs down some narrow alleyway in Budapest or Amman. Here we see real thought. A man contemplating himself, his situation, his woman, his job. There isn’t a lot of dialogue. Things are not explained. The film lets us sit in the uncertainty. What exactly is he thinking about? Where is this guy coming from? Well, who knows, we never get a clear answer, even his name is uncertain, but it sure is interesting to watch.
The opening-credits sequence comes about 15 minutes into the film, and it was there that I settled in and maybe even you could say I fell in love. I had a visceral sensation of Ahhhhh during that sequence which involves Clooney, in dark silhouette, at the wheel of a car, careening through a dark tunnel, with dim yellow lamps lighting his way ahead.
The credits sequence isn’t flashy. There are two shots all told: Clooney in profile, and the view of the tunnel ahead, with the names and credits showing up in simple white print. The tunnel goes on forever. In the film up to that point, all we have seen is that Clooney is some sort of agent for the United States government, and he is being tracked by angry Swedish assassins. He has killed some people. He was surprised by what happened, and he has to flee the scene, after making a quick call to his boss (the marvelous craggy-faced Johan Leysen). We know nothing else. Now we see him careening through a long dark tunnel. The camera stays on him. The music (wonderful score by Herbert Grönemeyer) is melancholy, haunting. It’s one of those examples of a moment in a film, early on, where the audience knows exactly what they are about to see, the mood, the tempo, the feel set up … all done with such a sure and artistic hand that you stop worrying. I worry a lot when I see movies. I have high hopes for every single movie I see. I want them all to be fantastic. It’s part of the fun of going to the movies. It’s a roller-coaster. It’s fun to think to myself, “Hm, that doesn’t work. Now why is that?” as much of a disappointment as it usually is. But with The American I stopped worrying almost immediately. It was a visceral moment, as I mentioned. An almost satiated feeling of satisfaction. And this was 15 minutes in.
Could the movie sustain that?
It can. And it does.
Director Anton Corbijn creates a truly paranoiac atmosphere while, at the same time, keeping a light-hand, not rushing the pace, not insisting on anything but the everyday observations of the moment-to-moment. George Clooney plays an American named Edward, or maybe it’s Jack, who holes himself up in a small Italian village, waiting for instructions for his last job, his final job. “I’m getting out.” The job in Sweden got too personal. Someone died who shouldn’t have died. He made a personal connection with someone, when he knows that that is detrimental to his job. He’s lost his edge. He is sick of living under discipline. He throws out the cell phone given to him by his boss, and instead drives to the next village to use a pay phone to call in for instructions. In the meantime, his life slows down to almost a halt. He lives in a bare-bones second-floor room. We see him doing situps, pullups, his body adorned with tattooes. He walks around the town. He makes regular visits to the local whorehouse, where he is a regular client of a prostitute named Clara (played by Violante Placido, she of the wonderfully malleable and expressive face). If Clara is not working, he doesn’t go with another girl. He leaves. This is an eloquent detail, essential to the emotional center of the film. We come to our own conclusions. He befriends the local priest (played by Paolo Bonacelli, a wonderful Italian actor), and they share meals and brandy. Their conversations contain worlds that are left unsaid. Edward/Jack knows he probably shouldn’t befriend this man. Anyone who gets close to him is in danger. But what is the harm of talking with a nice elderly man who lives just around the corner? The priest worries about the American. He senses something, something existential and tragic. “A man can be reached if he has God in his heart,” says the priest. Jack replies, “I don’t think God is interested in me, Father.”
These conversations unfold with the pace of people who have a lot of time. This is an illusion, and time is clearly running out for The American, but this moment in his life, this stay in the small village on the hill, is a respite. A deep breath before the final plunge. Doom and fear hang over him like a pall. He wakes up in the middle of the night, bathed in sweat, reaching for his gun, although no one is there. He works out like a man wanting to lose himself. His heart is not in it anymore. He works on his own time. He calls his boss when he feels like it (causing much anger on the other end). There is urgency in the world, yes. There are matters that need tending to, and now. But the American has opted out, for the moment. Perhaps he senses that tragic existential something too.
What is this final job? He is hired to create a perfect gun for another assassin (Mathilde, played by the coolly beautiful Thekla Reuten). She is mysterious. They meet surreptitiously in public, and talk about the gun she wants, its range, its speed, its sound. It must be built, this gun. An automatic rifle that can fit in a small bag. Jack gets to work. The sequences of his building this gun, with parts imported and parts found in a local “car doctor’s shop”, are riveting. Clooney sits at his table, parts spread out, filing things down, testing how they fit together, banging things with a mallet (timed with the church bells so that no one will hear), and again, the film does not rush this. The cuts are not quick or feverish. Corbijn is not trying to have an effect, although the end result is extremely effective. What we see is a man at work. Surrounded by isolation and quiet. We hear the clanking of the metal, the slight ominous clicks of the gauges, the tiny little sounds that make up an operation such as this one. The music is held back. The score is used to great purpose. When you hear music in The American, it really means something. Other than that, we hear natural sounds, what we would hear if we were really there. The clicks, rattles, sawing, clanks, click-click-click, and over all of that is Clooney’s face, lost in focus and concentration. He knows who he is in this moment. He knows his place in the world. His dread at who he has become, and what he has done, all of his sins, is present at all times … although soft-pedaled, by Clooney and Corbijn. By soft-pedaled I mean, except for a couple of lines (“I want to get out”, “I’ve sinned a lot, Father”), Jack does not wear his dread on his sleeve. He is coiled shut. He is inaccessible. This is the job for a movie star, full-stop, a man who knows how to act in close-up, and Clooney is fantastic throughout. He offers himself to us, because that is the job of a movie star, but he holds himself back, as people do in real life. He is a closed book. We, out there in the dark, project things up onto him: feelings, a past, motivations, and Clooney’s face allows that. He knows exactly what he is doing as an actor here. This is a star part. An old-school studio-system star part, and that’s one of the reasons I love the film so much, because it is so rooted in what the studio system once did so well. It created vehicles for the giant personalities it had under contract. It played to their strengths. It allowed the stars to shine at a wattage unheard-of today. Jack is a man not comfortable with what he does. He wouldn’t call himself a romantic, I don’t imagine that he would allow himself such introspection, but that is what I see in him. That is his secret, hidden even from himself, although he is starting to get the picture. A man in love, connected to others, in a casual everyday way (being a neighbor, a friend, a husband) is what he is meant to be, where his true nature leads him, and the world he has chosen will not, cannot, allow that.
The love story between Jack and Clara is subtle and complicated. She is a woman of the world, naturally, but there is something in her that is untouched. He touches it. The cliche of the “whore with a heart of gold” is not in play here, thank goodness. She treats him equally, but when she falls in love, and it happens rather suddenly, she goes with it. You can see it trembling across her face when she runs into him at a cafe during the daytime. She has now been held hostage by her own emotions. That’s the way love can be. She wasn’t looking for it, but here it is. Violante Placido is a wonderful actress. In the red-lit scenes in the brothel, she looks one way. I almost didn’t recognize her in the daylight, wearing a jeans jacket and a tank top. Jack seems disoriented as well. He has placed her in a context: she is the girl I sleep with once a week, and to see her out and about, and looking up at him with tenderness that seems to surprise even her throws him off. I loved how they both played that scene, in particular. There is so much going on! I immediately wanted the Rewind button to analyze each moment, each breath, each glance. He is ambushed as well. He only sleeps with her. There is a sex scene between the two of them that is raw and tender. Perhaps as a way to keep his own feelings at bay he says to her afterwards, “I come here to get pleasure, not give it”, although it is obvious from his behavior during said love scene that he wants to give her pleasure as well. Clara understands men. She’s been around. She was made love to that night, and she knows it. Such connections are often primal. She is comfortable in the world (watch how she handles the rude waiter who wants to shame her in the restaurant by only dealing with Clooney), comfortable with her place in it, but the American made love to her like he meant it. She knows the difference. That’s it for her, she’s in. Becoming emotionally involved with a client is a risky business – for both her and for him – and yet there’s that primal thing that can happen. It happens here. The love story is not a distraction from the thriller-aspect of the film, as so often happens. It is not a bone tossed to the women in the audience. It is an essential part of the film. It really is the film, actually.
This may come as a surprise. There are lots of surprises here.
Clooney broods, without making a fetish of it. He is not self-congratulatory as an actor, although you never doubt he knows what he is doing. Here, the character is lost in his everyday activities. He purposefully loses himself, in order not to think. When the time comes for him to act, you can feel his adrenaline rising. You can see it in his eyes. When he is alone, he is afraid. His time has run out. He never says it, but you feel that he is thinking, “Please … just a little bit more time …..” Life is calling to him, in all of its complex connections. He wants it. He wants in. But living in isolation and cold solitude has altered him. It may be too late. None of this is ever said. It is in Clooney’s performance.
What makes the film tense is not the plot. It’s the mood created. It’s the look in Clooney’s eyes as he sits across a table from a woman, and he tries to figure out what is going on. He tries to understand what is happening. Essential pieces of the puzzle have been left out. We know as much as he knows.
The small Italian village, crouched on a small hillside, is claustrophobic, with old streets and sidewalks folding in on each other, creating an almost Escher-like landscape. Dizzyingly repetitive. Up seems to be down. Stairways merge into alleys which merge into streets that then go up the stairs again. You can’t see around the corner. There are a couple of scenes showing wide Italian vistas, mountains and hills and fields, but for the most part, the vision is cramped in, which is appropriate.
Claustrophobic and close, The American dwells on Clooney’s face, as we watch him thinking, thinking, thinking.