Is The American A Subtle Character Meditation Or a Sluggish Bore?

Do we even need to describe the characters George Clooney plays anymore? The suave leading man has almost become a genre in himself: the dashing, loner gentleman who lives on the edge, likes his women and wine, and possesses an essentially good heart. In Michael Clayton this Clooney was an identity-less lawyer/agent. In Syriana, he is a CIA operative alone in the field. Even in Up in the Air, Clooney, despite his good humor, is more or less the same isolated, interesting guy. In The American, Clooney is Jack, or Edward, or Mr. Butterfly, depending on how each character knows the anonymous assassin who receives mysterious, well-paying gigs from the gruff, grey haired Pavel (Johan Leysen). He is, again, a loner, a womanizer, a charmer, and an essentially good man, despite his bad deeds. And, again, Clooney is damn good at playing his character, as if we haven’t come to expect that.

The American introduces us to this latest Clooney manifestation in Sweden, where he is lounging next to a fire with the naked Ingrid (Irina Bjorklund). Moments later, two mysterious Swedish assassins are dead in the snow along with Ingrid, and Clooney is rushing to Rome to find out what happened. We never quite find out all the details about Jack’s situation. He is a hired gun who has been living underground for years and his handlers expect him to remain disconnected from the world – no friends or lovers. Not surprisingly, this appears to have had its effect on Jack, whose eyes tell us his soul is in crisis, worn down from years of amoral isolation. Nonetheless, he sets about building a fancy rifle for a sexy assassin client (Thekla Reuten) while residing in an out of the way town in the mountains of Abruzzo.

Besides his romps with the prostitute Clara (Violante Placido) and strolls with the local priest he befriends, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), Jack’s life in exile is largely uneventful. A few bad guys eventually catch up with him, leading to some brief, lackluster chase sequences through the back streets of the village. But the real focus here is Jack at work. We watch him gather the pieces for the weapon and carefully construct the parts. “You have the hands of a craftsman, not an artist,” Benedetto tells Jack. We might add the heart of a craftsman too; in the process of his work, Jack appears content.

On a level, director Anton Corbijn (Control) ought to be commended for his restraint and patience in his adaptation of Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman. The American is a rare thriller that doesn’t feel pressured to launch into flashy action sequences. Instead, Corbijn is content to meditate on Clooney’s character. Corbijn’s camera focuses on the day to day, watching Clooney work, stroll, or sip coffee glumly, supporting our interest with exquisite photography of the Italian countryside and the constant charge of erotic tension (like James Bond, when Jack does associate with other people, they are usually Playboy centerfolds).

The longer this idle character study drags on, the more we see The American as a meditation on Jack’s universe in crisis. In another conversation between Jack and Benedetto, the priest says, “You Americans disregard history. You always try to live in the present.” This statement is true not only of Clooney’s character but of the film itself. The American is concerned with the present to a fault, betraying a hope that if Corbijn’s camera stays fixed on his leading man, something profound will emerge from the watching. In a café scene, we see Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West on a television in the background. Corbijn seems to be cluing us in to the kind of movie he is trying to make – one that fits in the tradition of no name heroes, whose tight-lipped sparseness betray an existential gravity. But Jack never becomes enough of a monolithic hero to fit into this western form.

The problem here seems to be Clooney himself. Despite the actor’s history of playing lonely gentlemen, his talent on screen has always been in lending these isolated souls charm and sensitivity. Clooney is more Clark Gable than Clint Eastwood, a movie star who always wins our affection, much as he seduces prostitutes and assassins in The American with a mere dispassionate grin. We never feel threatened by Clooney, and as a result, his sparseness doesn’t translate into moral gravity. It is hard to shake the fact that beneath Jack’s surface, there really isn’t much to dwell on. As much as Corbijn’s style betrays a European filmmaking sensibility, the lasting impression is an inadvertent cultural cliché – that the character of an American only runs skin deep.

Photo: The silent American George Clooney (Image courtesy of Focus Features).

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