Hidden from critics until just before its release, the dirty little secret about “The American” turns out to be that it’s an art film.
Director Anton Corbijn has crafted a quiet, haunting European thriller, drained of emotion and moving at its own deliberate pace.
It’s the second film from Corbijn, a famed photographer and music video director who’s closely associated with the bands Depeche Mode and Joy Division (among others).
His first film, “Control,” was a beautiful, austere, black-and-white biopic of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. “The American” has the bleak fatalism of a Joy Division song, but taut and restrained, it bears none of the rock ’n’ roll release.
George Clooney plays an assassin, Jack, whom the film opens on in bed with a beautiful woman, warm next to a fire in a winter cabin. Afterward, they bundle up and take a stroll in the knee-deep snow, where snipers suddenly begin firing at them.
Jack quickly and with obvious skill, dispatches the threat and tells his shocked companion to call the police. As soon as she turns, he shoots her in the back of the head. So much for pillow talk.
His boss (Johan Leysen) tells him by phone to lie low in a small Italian village. Arriving there, he takes one look and makes a U-turn, settling on the more appealing nearby town of Castelvecchio, a picturesque medieval village in the mountains.
Jack putts around town – a stone labyrinth – posing as a photographer of landscapes and architecture. Though he has been warned not to “make any friends,” the town priest, Father Benedetto (Paulo Bonacelli), befriends him, and he develops a relationship with a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido).
They both see the darkness hanging over Jack, but are hopeful for him. Father Benedetto warns, “You’re American. You think you can escape history.”
His past is catching up, too. Someone is shadowing him, reports of his previous misdeeds are showing up in the newspapers and a new job arrives: building a silent, highly precise rifle – a task which he attends to with the care of an artisan.
For Jack, every intimacy carries a threat. The most memorable shot in a film full of exquisite camera work from Corbijn and cinematographer Martin Ruhe is from Jack’s perspective as Clara’s hands clasp over his eyes – a game of “Guess who?” that feels momentarily terrifying.
That “The American” is beautiful to look at is unquestionable; Corbijn’s formal mastery is something to behold. What is finally slightly disappointing in the film is the familiarity of its story – another tale of “one last job.”
It’s difficult not to want Corbijn’s mournful seriousness to ease up a bit. But “The American” is nevertheless transfixing in its weary, muted grace.