American, The: Art Thriller, Directed by Anton (Control) Corbjin, Starring George Clooney

In The American, the European art thriller, playing a hit man who’s forced into complete seclusion in a small town in Italy, George Clooney challenges himself—and the audience.   He renders an incredibly quiet and internalized but still compelling performance, adding another honorable panel to his evolving career as an actor.

Based on Martin Booth’s novel, “A Very Private Gentleman” (a better, more specific title), adapted to the screen by Rowan Joff, The American is directed by the former photographer Anton Corbjin, as a follow-up to his critically acclaimed, award-winning first feature, “Control.”

Bearing the visual signature and mise-en-scene of a deliberate, self-conscious European art film, “The American” is one of Clooney’s least commercial films for several reasons. The source material has been compressed, with only selective scenes pulled out of the book. More importantly, there are only three or four characters in addition Jack, and with the exception of one (his love interest Carla), none properly developed.

Likley to dvide critics, “The American,” which is being distrbuted by Focus Features on September 1 as the first fall release, should score low-to-mid-range numbers at the box-office, grossing less than Clooney’s previous adult films, the Oscar noinated “Michael Clayton” or “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
Nominally a spy thriller, “The American” is basically plotless, sort of a one-man-show that doesn’t even meet the criteria of an in-depth character study. Whether intentionally or not, Clooney’s persona, Jack, remains enigmatic throughout the tale, offering little by way of social background, psychological motivation, value system, and so on.
Despite major narrative shortcomings, “The American” is largely intriguing (if not emotionally involving); in moments, it is even suspenseful. You have to respect the filmmakers (Clooney’s company produced the picture) for refusing to compromise and turn the material into something more palpable and accessible to the mass audience.
The theme of a loner, who’s trying to find peace of mind and redemption from the “bad” deeds of his past, has been done many times before, especially in the Western genre, perhaps going back to the somber 1950 feature, “The Gunfighter,” starring Gregory Peck.
“The American,” in other words, is a Western in disguise, centering on a mysterious stranger who comes to an unknown small town and connects with the local people there. Just like a classic Western, “The American” depicts a man who tries and fails to escape his past, which continues to haunt him and shape his life to the bitter end. Also like a Western, the film builds up to a fateful and fatal shootout, though here it comes as an anti-climax rather than climax, due to the innert, eventless nature of the narrative.
Like Clint Eastwood’s gunslingers of the 1960s and 1970s, Clooney’s Jack is a man of few words, tormented by an escalating inner turmoil. He used to live by the gun, and now he’s seeking a new peaceful existence, only to realize that can’t escape the violence that had ruled his life for so many years.
As an accomplished a portrait photographer, director Corbjin applies his considerable visual skills to “The American,” placing Clooney’s character against the topographically stunning region of Abruzzo, capturing its dramatic landscapes of distant mountains, deep wide valleys, picaresque lakes and rivers.
Though it’s only his second feature, Corbjin already shows thematic consistence: “The American,” just like “Control,” deals with the idea of trying to change one’s life. Phrased differently, can a man make good after doing wrong for most of his life? Can one overcome murders and other horrendous events that were integral to your life and defined your identity as a person.
In theory, Clooney’s role is quite complex, though in practice, what you mostly get is a dozen scenes with minutae description of a man who lives in constant fear of being tracked down and killed. Whether in private or public spaces, Jack always has to be on the alert for the smallest gesture, look, or natural sound is potentially life-threatening.

The little info that’s conveyed about Jack’s background comes from a number of telephone calls he makes, from which we learn about a major misstep in Sweden.  Jack is an assassin, whose latest job in Sweden went awry, ending more harshly than anyone expected. At first, retreating to the gorgeous but unfamiliar Italian countryside, he relishes being away from spying, action, and imminent death.

Holing up in a small medieval town, he begins to get to know his surroundings—and himself; you get the notion that he had never had the time or inclination to give an account to himself of who he really is. 
What enlivens this tale of a solitary man, who spends half of the narrative time by himself, building an ultra-sophisticated gun (he’s also an expert craftsman), is a series of encounters with the local people.
First, there is Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), also a mysterious figure, who assigns him a job, to construct a special weapon for a mysterious contact. Their meetings may be the most suspenseful moments in the picture–up to the end.
Most of the saga’s moral and ethical issues are expressed in interactions with the local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who wants to be friends but Jack is very cautious. Predictably, the two men get closer to each other, with each man confessing to his past; the priest turns out to be guilt ridden and ambiguous.
Quite entertaining, and highly erotic, too, are the encounters with Clara (Violante Placido), a beautiful, voluptuous and vivacious prostitute, who shows romantic interest in Jack and rekindles his interest in pursuing intimacy (for the first time in years). What begins as a torrid liaison, with one prolonged sex scene (that’s extremely hot due to the chemistry between the thesps) evolves into a deeply felt, mutual romance.
However, Jack realizes the risks involved in this courtship, namely, that by stepping out of the shadows and having picnics with nude swimming by the lake, he is tempting fate itself.