Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Professional killers seldom seem to have the good life in film. A job like that, despite the presumed financial rewards, is fraught with stress – stress that can lead to ennui and a dire sense of fatalism.
So it has been imagined for us by screenwriters and directors.
Sure, rich (dark) comedy may be mined in this genre; Pierce Brosnan is a killer with a mid-life crisis jonesing for a best friend in The Matador, while John Cusack’s depressed hitman contemplates attending his high school reunion with a long-lost love in Grosse Pointe Blank. (His shrink actually tells him to take time off and “don’t kill anybody for a few days. See what it feels like.”)
George Clooney’s dour titular character, Jack, in this somewhat downbeat film, more in keeping with the desperation and desire to escape in La Femme Nikita and The Professional, tries very much not to kill, or be killed. He hides in a small town in the Italian countryside, hoping to stay inconspicuous – and alive – while completing his next, possibly last, job.
From his serious, no-nonsense manner – Clooney has seldom looked less amused, or more grave – we gather that he has led a closeted existence on the fringe, death his one constant companion, for a long time now. Such a fractured life can torture even the most resolute souls.
He is almost always tense, suspicious to the point of paranoia – understandable as his enemies have a habit of dropping in unannounced – and seemingly grapples for a happy ending that he knows deep down is impossible.
Some reviewers have remarked that The American, despite its name, is decidedly un-American; the fact is that it is an American film underpinned by numerous European talents, including director Anton Corbijn (Control), and European sensibilities. It feels thoroughly continental in the way it patiently and understatedly relates this character study.
In an intense, though not extravagant role, Clooney isn’t perfect, but still does very well to convince that his character, more a weapons specialist than an out-and-out killer, is one who understands his life as purgatory. He is not yet old, per se, and his instincts are sound, but he is losing his edge, his mysterious handler tells him.
Making friends, finding lovers, letting down his guard – these are all signs of Jack growing sloppy. When we are first introduced to the anti-hero protagonist, he is extricating himself from what had seemed a happy, tucked-away life with a lover. Enemies catch up and he is compelled to use deadly force.
Corbijn’s thoughtful film is deliberately paced and marvellously directed. The story develops at the rhythm it requires for us to delve into Jack’s life and gradually gain insight to his motivations. This is what makes the film so absorbing.
There are many contradictions with Clooney’s character. He wishes to hide, yet also seeks out friendship in oblique ways, eventually achieving a cordial relationship with a local priest (Paulo Bonacelli). He lies about being a photographer on assignment, yet does an oddly poor job of lying about being ‘no good’ with machines.
He seems afraid to love, yet gets entangled romantically with a small-town prostitute (Violante Placido). He shows great focus and passion for his job, working assiduously to prepare a customised weapon for a fellow professional (Thekla Reuten), yet is unequivocally determined to leave this life, sick of hiding and walking on eggshells all the time.
There is much to savour here, all centred on Clooney’s star turn, and kudos must go to the ensemble cast and Corbijn’s measured direction.
The American is bewitching and contemplative, a mediation of an untenable existence, a life caught in a death grip and on borrowed time. It is beautiful in its elegant simplicity, yet more complicated and richly textured than it appears at first glance.
And it is heartbreaking and tragic for the way Jack falls in love with the mirage of a settled, unencumbered life.
As such, this is one of the better films of the year, even if it likely won’t get the hype or acclaim it deserves. Films as modest and solemn as this, despite Clooney’s A-list status, tend not to get widely seen. It would have been different if the film had lived up to its name more, if it were more American in its style.
But then this would have been a totally different picture, with more bells and whistles in all likelihood, and thus the worse for it.
About Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.