Have Gun, Will Travel: 'The American'
Who is Jack, the painfully distant protagonist at the heart of Anton Corbijn’s new thriller? We suspect he might have been an assassin, and indeed, when thrust in harm’s way, he responds with pistols drawn, coldly gunning down friends and foes alike – anyone, it seems, who might compromise his work.
He is a difficult man to engage. Personal disclosures are few, and whatever concessions he offers to inquiring strangers – about his job, or his technological acumen – are often misleading. Yet he takes no joy in the deception. Jack, whose real name might be Edward, is hungry for human contact, a luxury his lifestyle doesn’t afford.
Who better to play Jack than George Clooney, whose strongest work – in Michael Clayton (2007) and last year’s Up in the Air – has found him emotionally undernourished, struggling to fill the void with an almost obsessive dedication to work? Jack is neither as righteous as Clayton nor as coolly charismatic as Ryan Bingham, his corporate hatchet man in Air, but Clooney makes him a force.
Not much happens in The American, Corbijn’s loose, leisurely paced adaptation of Martin Booth’s 1991 novel A Very Private Gentleman. At the onset, we find Jack in Dalarna, Sweden, where an attempt on his own life rapidly unravels, leaving a trail of corpses on a bed of beautifully shot snow.
He escapes to an Italian village, keeping in contact with his handler (Johan Leyson) long enough to secure a new job: building a high-powered rifle for a fellow killer (Thekla Reuten). Jack approaches the project with an almost undivided focus, wordlessly toiling into the wee hours, honing his weapon with the love of a craftsman.
Somehow he finds time for a woman – Clara (Violante Placido), a prostitute with whom he forms a mostly unspoken bond. She senses a basic decency in him, but also a lingering sadness. Jack doesn’t care to argue the point.
How his story unfolds, and where it leads, will frustrate those seeking a typically American thriller. Corbijn never rushes the action, preferring to take in the scenery (the cinematography is gorgeous) and let the drama breathe. And yet his narrative rarely wants for momentum. Rowan Joffe’s screenplay, a tribute to understatement, keeps us guessing.
So too does Clooney. Less cocksure here than he is enigmatic, the actor is no less commanding, setting the tone with his eyes more than his voice. It will likely be considered a minor entry in his oeuvre, but in terms of his ability to control the screen, it speaks volumes.