It’s night in a cabin in the Swedish forest. Jack (George Clooney) and his perky girlfriend make love by the warm glow of the fireplace. In the morning they stride giddily through the white landscape. Within seconds shots ring out and the snow becomes soaked in blood.
Jack escapes and contacts his handler, a nasty Belgian (Johan Leysen) whose wrinkled face looks like the folds of a shroud. Jack seeks refuge in Abruzzo, a small hillside town about 90 minutes northeast of Rome. It’s a good place to hide out–few cars, no big plazas, no tourist attractions. Jack becomes known as “The American.”
The local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), a man who has secrets of his own, doesn’t believe Jack’s story that he’s an architectural photographer. He knows when he’s found a kindred spirit of sorts, and tries to encourage Jack to seek forgiveness for whatever wrongs he has done. “God has no interest in me,” Jack chastens the priest.
In such a small town you’d think the prostitutes would be few and weary, but for some odd reason, Abruzzo has a handful of young lovelies plying their wares. One night Jack becomes the brothel’s customer. Clara (Violante Placido) is naïve and sweet and soon she’s so impressed with Jack’s ability in the bedroom that she stops charging him. Inevitably she melts Jack’s heart. As in dozens of spy and crime moves before this one, Jack decides he wants love instead of death and insists this current job is his last one. “I’m out,” he tells his handler. Two simple words with terrible repercussions.
Jack’s assignment is to make a high-precision assault rifle that will be used in an assassination of an unidentified victim. Will it be a world leader? A crime lord? Or someone closer to home? Jack doesn’t care.
He doggedly collects various pieces of equipment that he can transform into gun parts, measures and files them. He’s a superb craftsman, using his hands as precisely as a surgeon does. When he’s not building the weapon, he’s obsessively working out, keeping his middle-aged body flight-ready. We see the Special Services tattoo on his arm and the shape of a butterfly on the back of his neck but we don’t see much more about Jack other than his increasing nervousness. We do learn that he is fascinated by butterflies, able to identify (and perhaps identify with?) the endangered ones. Women who are fond of him call him “Mr. Butterfly.”
In time, Jack meets his client, the purchaser of the gun. No paunchy middle aged ruffian turns up. No, this is the age of the bad-ass femme villain. The client turns out to be–surprise surprise–a steely Dutch beauty named Mathilde (Theka Reuten). She’s as skilled and cold-hearted as Jack, and the way she shoots a gun is a powerful aphrodisiac. Jack remains untempted. It seems, indeed, his heart belongs to sweet Clara.
Meanwhile the tension builds. Dutch director Anton Corbjin (Control) never loses a chance to keep his hero and the audience in a state of constant hypervigilance. It’s a lean, old-fashioned suspense script, one that tastefully embraces the genre’s clichés instead of throwing in special effects to pretend they aren’t there. Footsteps echo off the cobblestones and scary shadows crawl along the walls of the stone houses. Menace follows behind Clooney as if it is a spectre looking over his shoulder. Jack knows there is no loyalty among a den of killers.
The American is a feast for Clooney fans. The director is fascinated with Clooney’s face and allows us to see it in long close-ups. But no matter how close we get to Clooney’s face, his character remains a cypher. We never get to know more than the barest details of his past; we know his longings only by the soulful look on his face, so we have little sympathy for him, other than how appealing he is to look at. Why should we care about this guy who has reached a certain age in his life without any place to call his own, or anyone to love, not even a dog? All he cares about (until he meets Clara) are butterflies, which live only a few days and then fly off. What makes him do what he does and do it without concern for what havoc he will help wreak on the world?
Though it’s titled The American, the film is anything but. The nearly silent hero, the nihilistic mood, and the largely international cast, define the film as European. The nudity and blatant metaphors make it what some people call an “art film.” But George Clooney is an American and so the film takes on at least some of the positive vigor we’re known for — when Clooney goes into action, and twists the will of the bad guys, maybe, just maybe, he and Clara can ride off into the sunset.