Oh, the loneliness of the professional killer. Of all the preposterous cinematic mythologies, this is one I just don’t get. What is it about a ruthless assassin with a heart of gold, struggling with his inner demons, that fascinates? Is it a bit of renegade wish fulfillment, these characters who live outside the law, are their own boss, travel the globe, go to bed with gorgeous foreigners? Do we want our lives to be wrought with danger and intrigue, like a secret agent but with less on-the-job responsibility? Is it our chance to imagine committing an ultimate sin but, thanks to these characters’ inherent goodness, not be a villain?
While I fail to wrap my brain around the allure of the hitman movie, I must certainly confess to enjoying them all the same. And a film like “The American” – technically not a hitman movie but close enough to count – is bursting with a certain kind of appeal: its anti-hero is a glamorous globetrotter lucky enough to be born with the icy, sexy cool of George Clooney; he’s a loner, but in the “dark rebel” mode, not the “socially awkward” one; his good soul and dangerous job place him in a moral grey zone, where great drama thrives.
“The American” is not great drama. But it is good drama, thanks to a smart, restrained performance by Clooney (who has, in the past decade or so, become something of a master in understatement) and subdued direction from Anton Corbijn (“Control”), who lends the picture a dreamy, relaxed quality, the sort of pace that threatens to be boring but fortunately never quite gets there.
The film is a fairly simple character study of a gunsmith (Clooney) who calls himself both Jack and Edward. Neither name is the truth; very few characters give their real names here, which Jack/Edward probably expects. After a run-in with some bad men in Sweden, Jack/Edward flees to a small village in Italy, where he awaits his next job, befriends the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), falls for a prostitute (Violante Placido), and avoids getting offed by those nasty Swedes.
All of this fills 103 minutes, but it feels much, much longer. Corbijn’s rhythms are relaxed to an almost preposterous degree; in one scene, Jack/Edward sits in a café watching a particularly slow scene from “Once Upon a Time in the West,” and it’s like we’ve fallen into a Möbius strip of unending silent staring at silent staring. And yet it works, getting to the core of Jack/Edward’s desperate solitude, spurred on by a deep-rooted paranoia.
The problem here stems from the screenplay, by Rowan Jaffe (adapting Martin Booth’s novel “A Very Private Gentleman”). Not because of the story’s languid pace, but because of the script’s tendency to be a little too on-the-nose with plot points and overly explanatory with revelations best left to subtext. When Jack/Edward confronts the priest with a secret from the holy man’s past, it’s a nice, delicate touch – everybody’s got a few sins to hide, the film tells us – that gets undone by too much dialogue thrown in long after we’ve picked up on it. Later, his “the wicked comfort each other” romance with a local hooker plays out a little too obvious for its own good, not to mention the manly fantasy about wowing a prostitute with one’s sexual prowess – Jack/Edward tells her she should “get pleasure” through her work, not give it.
(Note: minor spoilers this paragraph.) As an exploration of paranoia, however, “The American” redeems itself nicely. We can feel the world closing in on our leading man; he begins spying on his lover, because maybe she’s in on the whole thing. The film squeezes us, especially once Jack/Edward begins preparing for violence that could spring any moment yet never arrives – until, that is, the violence does indeed arrive, first with a few quick action sequences as Jack/Edward makes chase with the Swedish assassin, then in a finale where the story opens up to allow us to see others’ intentions (a major change from the Jack/Edward’s perspective-only set-up that carries us through the first two acts) and we learn, yes, his life really is in danger. It’s exciting, to be sure, with bursts of cold-hearted bloodshed and a somber pay-off, but did we need it? A sense of open-ended unresolved paranoia, while possibly less satisfactory, would’ve fit in more nicely with the rest of the picture’s moody groove.
It’s a groove that commands attention, though, even as the story stumbles through too-familiar territory. Corbijn allows the film to crawl, preferring the stillness over a more rushed “Bourne”-esque action travelogue, and Clooney delivers a somber turn that draws us into the character. “The American” is the sort of movie we call “meditative” and “introspective” because we’re taken in, not put off, by its hushed demeanor.