Review: The American (2010)

It's somewhat amusing to me that the same weekend movie-goers are being encouraged to see Machete, Robert Rodriguz's carnage-filled tribute to exploitation cinema, they're also being given the option of seeing The American.  Both are attempting to cater to the action crowd, but they couldn't be more different films.  One is a hammer to the skull; the other is a gentle nudge to the chest.

Forget the marketing.  This is not a movie about a flawless hero, it is a movie about a broken villain.  Clooney stars as Jack (or is it Edward?), a craftsman who makes guns for elite hitmen.  The opening scene of the film indicates there are people that would like to see him dead.  We can only imagine why; the specific reasons do not matter.  What matters is that it's clear he's a man living with the consequences of past offenses, both external and internal.  Within the first five minutes he's stripped himself of his only tie to a non-violent world.  After that, it's off to Italy for one last job and a desperate search for healing.

Those in the mood for explosions and non-stop gunfire will be disappointed.  Rather than a rock-'em-sock-'em roller coaster of testosterone, this is a nuanced character study in which stillness is just as threatening as a shootout, and most of the conflict is not that of assassins and victims, but of the soul.  Jack is haunted by his past.  His only potential friend is Father Benedetto, a priest who helps others escape their sins as a mean of escaping his own.  There are brief moments of violence, but most of the time they occur in simple scenes in which Jack is tailed by unknown assailants through the alleyways of Castel del Monte.  Every corner could be hiding a gunman, and a single wrong step could be his last.  There will be no dramatic car chases, no bloody standoffs with a roomful of thugs.  Merely navigating the maze of the city (and of his heart) is danger enough.

Jack's one weakness is that which plagues us all: a desire to love and be loved.  He struggles to maintain a shred of humanity in a profession that could easily snatch it away.  He longs for human connection, but knows in all likelihood it's futile.  He turns to women for salvation, hoping that they might provide him with some sort of worthwhile intimacy.  His client is Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), a no-nonsense assassin with a coldly sensuous demeanor and an expert knowledge of firearms.  They discuss the specifications of the weapon she needs, and he takes her to a clearing by a river for target practice.  Were they not trained killers, it might be romantic.  "Have you ever brought a woman here before?" she asks.  "No," comes the reply.  This is a special place for Jack, and one he'll return to repeatedly, a spot where he can sit among the grass and birds and forget his woes.  By bringing her here, he's letting her see a side of him that mostly stays hidden.  There is a moment in which she assembles the weapon he's made for her, and all he can do is stare at her hands as she twists on the suppressor.  The tension is palpable.  It's obvious he's slightly aroused by the sight of her coolly wrapping her fingers around the phallic-shaped barrel, but simultaneously aware that this rifle's bullets may very well be meant for him.  Perhaps that's what makes her so damn sexy.  She can satisfy a subconscious longing for death.

Mathilde may be Jack's spiritual soul mate, but it's for that exact reason he knows they can't be together.  He seeks solace in the arms of Clara (Violante Placido), a prostitute fond of frolicking in the nude.  If Mathilde is all business with flirtatious undertones, Clara is her doppelganger, screaming sex, but Jack fears a double-cross lurking underneath.  A glance, a word, an innocent gesture - these could all be masks for betrayal.  His paranoia is as extreme as his capacity for violence.  How can he learn to love if he can't trust anybody? 

Clooney may very well nab an Oscar nomination for his performance here, and it would not be undeserved.  This is not the classy, cool persona of films like Ocean's 11 and Out of Sight.  Jack is world-weary and lost, and Clooney infuses his gaze with a deep pool of sorrow.  Even as he efficiently murders those who are after him, he seems tired, somehow.  Defeated.  Desperate.  It's like he's searching for something, but he doesn't know what it is or how to catch it, forever lost in the chase.

Music video director Anton Corbijn crafts picturesque images of the city that reflect the stark, cold apathy of his protagonist.  The pace is slow and absorbing, like a woman's caress.  At times things move a bit too deliberately, and you might find yourself fidgeting as you wait for next scene of suspense.  But it never crosses the line from slow-moving into boring.  Jack's journey will just take time.  Redemption always does.