The first screening for critics of the new paranoid thriller The American was Monday night (before its Wednesday opening) in a wee, shabby theater with crummy sound. The message was: “This is a dog and we’re keeping it leashed until the last possible moment.” I enjoyed the picture, though. On a substantive level it’s ludicrous, but in its spareness and uninflected pacing and use of space, it takes you back to an era of arty, angst-ridden European existential pulp movies that were like abstract essays on the genre. The American is the least American thriller in years.
It’s based on Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, in which the first-person narrator—who’s British, by the way—crafts specialized weapons for assassins. He aims be “as indistinguishable from the next man as a pebble on the beach.” Here, he’s played by George Clooney, maybe the last guy I’d cast as an anonymous nomad. But Clooney is a star and holds the screen, and he has dieted down to muscle and sinew, with none of the accretions of a life fully lived. His Jack moves from country to country, shedding identities, always beginning anew.
Ensconced in an ancient Abruzzo hill town, he bonds with a priest played by Paolo Bonacelli, who utters the movie’s thesis lines: “You’re American. You think you can escape history. You live for the present,” and, “You cannot doubt the existence of hell. You live in it. It’s a place without love.” That was where Clooney lived in his last movie, too, Up in the Air, and I get a sense that with that film and this one and Solaris and Michael Clayton that he’s trying to deepen his persona. The enterprise is probably doomed. He’s just naturally gregarious, a disarmingly handsome smoothie with a toasty, caressing voice. He did pull off the brooding thing in Michael Clayton, but he had a fuller script. Here, when he stares blankly offscreen, he’s just blank.
The film is so studiously desolate that I think if at that sad little screening I attended someone had giggled in the wrong place, the game would have been over. It would have opened the floodgates, turned into Mystery Science Theater with the audience heckling Clooney and his God’s Loneliest Man act. But the silence held, and the movie cast a spell. One reason for its power is its opening sequence on a frozen lake in Sweden, an attempt on the life of Clooney’s Jack with a shocking twist that lingers in the mind—that we never quite get over.
I also like all the minutiae, the weaponry shop talk. There are long scenes in which Jack does nothing but construct a gun to the specifications of a female client (the sultry, teasingly enigmatic Thekla Reuten) for purposes unknown: a submachine gun with the range of a rifle and a “suppressor” to disguise the shooter’s location. Watch Clooney open tubes and fiddle with steel rings and sand stuff down and add mercury to bullets to make them mushroom on impact. It’s absorbing, this craftsmanship. It connects with the deliberate, craftsman-like feel of the film itself.
The Netherlands-born director, Anton Corbijn (Control), makes the landscape do much of the talking. There are lots of paranoia-inducing overhead shots. Empty spaces alternate with twisty ancient stone stairs and shadowed passageways. The thrust, though, is increasingly sentimental. As in Up in the Air, Jack falls in love, here with a prostitute played by the oxymoronically named Violente Placido. The sex (under red lights) is pretty explicit, at least where she’s concerned. I wondered why Placido, with her soft, open face and voluptuous body, was so familiar. It turns out she’s the daughter of Simonetta Stefanelli, unforgettable as Michael Corleone’s Sicilan bride in The Godfather, the one whose murder ended whatever hope he had of retaining his humanity. Will her daughter be similarly terminated here? Or does she have an agenda of her own?
Booth’s novel has a conventional whodunit wind-up, but in the film Corbijn steers into Antonioni country (albeit with more gore): You’re left shaking your head and asking, “Why ?” But perhaps that is, as World Trade Center wire-walker (and quintessential French existentialist) Phillipe Petit says in Man on Wire, “very American finger-snapping. I did somezing magnificent and mysterious and I got a ‘why,’ and ze beauty of eet is zat I don’t have a ‘why.’” Perhaps Jack is stalked simply because a man with no past and no future must live in the most tenuous present, a thin wire of existence that's apt to be ended by a bullet from anywhere, at any time.
Or perhaps it’s lousy screenwriting.