Two sub-genres well known in the world of action films are hit men and the concept of “one last job.” But what happens when these tropes are applied to a film that forgoes the action element almost all together? Can they work in a film that’s more of a drama and character study? Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits Of Control would seem to imply the answer was no, but a counter-argument hit theaters this past week that actually proves otherwise. Of course, it helps that Anton Corbijn’s The American also features an interesting plot, an actual narrative, and a silver-haired fox that oozes charisma in the lead role. (Happily, they both feature a beautiful, wise, and frequently nude woman too.)
An assassin named Jack (George Clooney) heads to Italy after an attempt on his life in Sweden that resulted in the death of his lady friend. He settles in to a small town where he awaits contact from his handler, the gravelly-voiced Pavel (Johan Leysen), but instead of providing an answer to the question of who’s trying to kill him Pavel assigns him a new job. While he prepares for this final assignment Jack befriends two people. One is a local priest named Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), the other is a local prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido). Jack spends his time until the hit building and preparing the rifle, exploring the small town, conversing with the priest about life and redemption, and possibly falling in love. A hit man who falls in love while working one last job? Yeah, good luck with that.
The American is a fairly masterful slow burn of a thriller that shows Hollywood can still make intelligent and interesting movies for adults… when they hire foreign directors. The film opens strong with Jack and a friend cozying up in a warm cabin on a frozen Swedish lake. The two go for a peaceful walk across the blindingly white expanse, but their calm morning soon erupts with gunfire and violence. That pattern spreads itself throughout the film. Long stretches of Jack walking, talking, taking in the sights, and just being, are punctuated by short and effective scenes of action. Quick gun fights and slow sex scenes exist between deceptively passive build-ups to one or the other.
Jack is the focus of the film, but his two new friends add warmth and weight through their dialogue and intentions. “I wonder how many bastards were conceived here” says Father Benedetto as he and Jack walk the church grounds and pass lovers on a bench. His rhetorical question brings a smile, but his point about sinful deeds on hallowed grounds doesn’t go unnoticed. Unspoken is the inverse belief, one meant for Jack’s soul, that goodness can also be found in otherwise evil men. Clara enters Jack’s life as an outlet for his needs both sexual and human, but as time goes on his feelings for her become something more. It’s easy to see why as in addition to being a very beautiful woman (clothed and unclothed), Placido is a talented actress whose eyes express innocence and a longing difficult for any man to resist.
Corbijn brings a sharp eye to the film letting his camera focus on small details even as we’re witness to beautiful wide shots of the town and surrounding countryside. The intricacies of Jack’s world are ever present, from Pavel’s exasperated sighs whenever Jack calls to the subtle and emotionally hopeful looks passed between Jack and Clara. The script by Rowan Joffe keeps the viewers’ minds working as well as he weaves a suspicious mechanic and a series of prostitute murders into the story alongside the central narrative. Jack may be a traditional character type, but he still holds his secrets. He mentions more than once that he’s no good with machines, but his hands betray the lie as they work with experience across the parts of a rifle, the engine of a car, or even the body of a prostitute.
Slow burn films aren’t for everyone, but they work when the story creates and maintains a narrative focus built around interesting characters. Jack isn’t necessarily an original creation, we’ve seen the reticent hit man on the cusp of retirement before, but Clooney brings a humanity to him often lacking in similar characters. He’s capable and cold, but his eyes betray a hope and desire for love that he’s unable to completely extinguish. Clooney’s Jack is the reluctant heart of The American, and his performance paired with Corbijn’s exquisitely detailed direction works to create one of the smartest and most mature thrillers of recent years.
The Upside: A slow burn; George Clooney perfectly balances charm and cold intensity; beautiful cinematography and locales; well-timed punctuations of violence or sex; Violante Placido is often naked and always beautiful
The Downside: A slow burn; ending is inevitable and predictable
On the Side: George Clooney is, in fact, an American.