Last year's acclaimed Up in the Air presented George Clooney as a taciturn career hatchet man isolated by corporate America, despite his empty sexual encounters and comely young protégé.
The ruminative new thriller The American presents a literal version of Up in the Air's central metaphor. Here Clooney plays an actual hit man isolated in ancient Europe, despite empty sexual encounters and another comely young protégé. The difference with The American is that Clooney and his apprentice end lives with customized rifles, not handshakes and severance packages.
The American recounts a familiar kind of story about the existential crisis of an enigmatic assassin, but Clooney and director Anton Corbijn invest the clichés with close attention and fresh energy.
Clooney's character goes by aliases such as "Edward" and "Jack," and we have no reason to believe either is his real name. We first see Edward basking before a warm fireplace and an equally warm woman (Irina Björklund) in a Swedish cabin. His domestic satisfaction explodes when mysterious gunmen attack the happy couple in the snow. He doesn't know who they are, but his lack of shock and violent counterattack when ambushed by murderous strangers hints at Edward's bloody profession.
Edward's handler (Johan Leysen) advises him to lay low in a timeless Italian village with narrow, maze-like streets. Edward tells a gregarious priest (Paolo Bonacelli) that he's a photographer, but in reality, he has taken one last job as a gunsmith for an impending assassination. Edward builds a weapon for an improbably young and gorgeous sniper (Thekla Reuten) who doesn't name her intended target. Some of The American's best scenes show Edward working wordlessly at his craft: disassembling a rifle, putting together a silencer, camouflaging the weaponry in an attaché case, etc. Even if he wasn't constructing a lethal weapon, Edward's focused intensity would seize our attention.
Between cryptic phone calls and mealtime chats with the priest, Edward visits a local brothel for some sexual transactions. Unexpectedly, he finds himself drawn to a lovely whore, Clara (Violante Placido), who seems to reciprocate to his feelings. She's young, classy, vivacious, unclad and doesn't fake her sexual responsiveness with Edward, making her an irresistible Euro-hottie. Clara's almost certainly too good to be true, but Placido infuses her with such relaxed exuberance, she entices Edward and the audience alike to give into temptation on the chance she's sincere.
A brief scene shouts out to the Italian-made Western classic Once Upon a Time in the West and Peter Fonda's ruthless gunslinger. The American seldom imitates the widescreen and operatic scores of spaghetti westerns, but director Sergio Leone may have inspired Corbijn's balance of silence and soundtrack noise. As well as the way he frames Clooney against unpopulated backgrounds, visually emphasizing Edward's alienation. Bird's-eye shots coldly regard the mosaic-style pattern of the village's rooftops and the hairpin turns of rural roads.
Rowan Joffe, son of Killing Fields director Roland Joffe, adapted the script from Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman and holds few surprises for the viewer. At least the script provides a framework within which Clooney and Corbijn can cultivate Edward's world-weary, suspicious mind-set. The American capitalizes on the idea that in a life of justifiable paranoia, the most friendly and interesting people may be the most dangerous. At least Edward has reason to keep his guard up, but for most of us, emotional distance can turn into a self-imposed trap.