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‘The American’ review: Suspense prevails in George Clooney’s silence

By Anthony D’Alessandro

HollywoodNews.com: Despite his good looks and accessible leading man aura, George Clooney’s canon is comprised of social outsiders and in certain cases, as in his latest hypnotic thriller “The American” — nomads.

And to Clooney’s credit as an actor, he doesn’t get bogged down by the Hollywood system whereby his credits live and die by the strength of their box office openings. Clooney is allowed to stretch as a thespian and stretch he does in Anton Corbijn’s razor-sharp thriller about a Yank assassin who hides from Swedish killers in the medieval hilltop towns of Abruzzo, Italy. Filling the screen with his steely, pensive, puppy-dog looks, Clooney’s Jack — who goes by two aliases, Edward to his Italian g.f. and “Mr. Butterfly” to everyone else — is a man of few words; his small talk literally rivaling that of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg in “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.” Clooney’s Jack is the 21st century mold of Sergio Leone’s ‘Man With No Name.’ He’s a departure from the actor’s chatterbox characters in “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” and “Michael Clayton,” and Clooney executes his less-is-more style with sublime grace.


Though “The American” with its smart, deliberate rhythm is bound to test the patience of moviegoers –who will argue that the editor, screenwriter should have drank more espresso while making the European feature — it will come as no surprise to hear mention of Clooney’s name come award season.

“The American” opens in a thick, snowy meadow of Dalarna, Sweden. Jack has finished making love to Ingrid (Irina Bjorklund), a woman who might just be one of many for this mysterious man. The two embark on a walk through the drifts when they’re suddenly attacked by a killer. Jack easily nicks the guy before turning the gun on Ingrid, who he believes double-crossed him, and offs a second gunner in the ambush. Jack retreats to Rome where he meets up with Pavel (the intense Belgian actor Johan Leysen who makes Terence Stamp look dainty), a mercenary boss who instructs him to retreat to Abruzzo, Italy. While Jack is away, Pavel tells him that he’ll try to make sense of why he was a target by the Swedes.

Jack eventually settles in Castel del Monte, where he indulges in the Italian high life of sipping café lungos, sitting around the piazza, quietly debating ethics with the village priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), and bedding a call-girl, Clara (the beautifully, pointed Italian actress Violante Placido). No matter how many Armani suits Clooney dons, or how deep his olive skin is, his character sticks out among the Italian locals as the sole American in town. This only intensifies the film’s non-action as one eagerly awaits the off-screen assassin’s arrival who’ll easily foil Jack. Jack is an open target who could have been safer harboring among Neapolitan thieves. But a Swedish assassin does eventually show up, and what makes the alley moped-car chase with Jack more nail-biting is that it arrives after a series of long, quiet moments.


As Jack sits on his hands in Abruzzo, Pavel dispenses a job to him which doesn’t entail pulling a trigger. Jack is visited by the enigmatic sniper Mathilde (Thekla Reuton) who, over a tete-a-tete, requests that he construct a rifle for her complete with mercury-filled, explosive bullets. A newspaper article about a tragic murder later reveals Mathilde’s grand design and she returns to claim her prize in an unsettling restaurant scene, which at first appears to be an homage to the Al Pacino-Sterling Hayden sequence from “The Godfather.”

The Dutch-born Corbijn, whose debut 2007 feature “Control” followed the life of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of British post-punk band Joy Division, executes a deftly, wonderfully slow thriller with whiffs of Leone’s westerns in terms of its protagonist’s opaque mannerisms and the symbolic use of the southern Italian mountainous region against Jack’s grey, rustic and romanticized life as a gun-for-hire (Martin Ruhe’s d.p. work vividly captures the drama of overcast lighting and rich earth tones of the Italian region). And unlike Leone’s overindulgence in Ennio Morricone’s score throughout his Spaghetti westerns, Corbijn reserves Herbert Gronemeyer’s con legno stringed notes for chosen, appropriate moments.

The only flaw in “The American” is that we really don’t know a hell of a lot about Jack. This is intentional on Corbijn’s part as he has expressed his m.o. in interviews; that movies too often drip with an excessive amount of character back-story. That’s a refreshing p.o.v. to take in a thriller, but it’s not clear why Jack tolerates Italian small town life — especially when his life is at stake. A butterfly such as himself would just keep on the lam. The fact that he’s reconciling his tumultuous past within the humdrum, simple confines of cobblestones and pasta isn’t clear – because we know very little about his previous sins.


But “The American” is all about being in the moment, and Clooney captures the complexity of his feelings throughout each crevice of his face. One of the film’s best walk away moments is when he falls deeply for the flawed Clara, and immediately assumes she’s out to kill him. Hiding a revolver within a picnic basket, Clooney distressingly tries to size her up and debates shooting her – without uttering a word. The sadness is all in his eyes and the actor proves once again, like in “Michael Clayton,” the resilience of his dramatic range.

Photo Credit: Focus Features

A Focus Features release in conjunction with Twins Financing L.L.C. Smokehouse Productions, Greenlit Rights and This Is That Productions. Produced by Anne Carey, Jill Green, Ann Wingate, Grant Heslov, George Clooney. Executive produced by Enzo Sisti. Directed by Anton Corbijn from a screenplay by Rowan Joffe adapted from Martin Booth’s novel “A Very Private Gentleman.”

Jack/Edward – George Clooney
Ingrid – Irina Bjorklund
Pavel – Johan Leysen
Father Benedetto – Paolo Bonacelli
Mathilde – Thekla Reuten
Clara – Violante Placido
Fabio – Filippo Timi


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  • September 6, 2010 | Permalink |

    I just saw The American. Probably one of the worst movies I have ever seen. The American is awful. Nonsensical, stupid and vapid.

  • September 12, 2010 | Permalink |

    It’s the very opposite of The Expendables — I enjoyed both — and for that reason is an excellent film all around: Acting, expansive landscapes, the wonderful priest who confesses to Clooney, the cute women, the excellent acting by all, and the step-by-step enfolding of the story. I loved that the narrative did not spoon feed me. Although he dies in the end, he dies having learned to care for someone, to love and live, so it’s also a redemptory movie too. A+

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