Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Review: "The American"

A man and a priest walk through a lovely Italian park in the first light of morning, talking about sin.

The priest, old and familiar with the myriad weaknesses of men, asks the man if he would like to confess. The man, an American, says that he's had good cause for everything he's done, and turns the tables by needling the priest about his own failings. The clergyman freely confesses to his own sins, and tells the American that even if he is not a believer, he already knows about Hell: An existence without love. This is the man's world on earth.

There is plenty of action and intrigue in "The American," the spare, tightly-wound new thriller starring George Clooney. But I think the scene in the park is where the film's true heart lies. This is less the story of a man who kills for a living, than what that life has extracted from his soul.

Jack -- sometimes that's his name, sometimes it's Edward; others call him Mr. Butterfly -- is a man of precision and suppression. He executes his trade with the meticulous professionalism of craftsman who does not relish the work, but is driven to do it well.

This also requires that he distance himself from others. Jack demonstrates this in an intro scene set in Sweden, in which his calculating actions are far more chilling than the frozen landscape where it takes place.

Clooney, with an understated performance that registers mostly through his eyes and the tightening of his jaw, portrays a man who has literally grown afraid of attachment.

"Don't make any friends, Jack," the hitman's old handler (Johan Leysen) advises. "You used to know that."

After the trouble, Jack decamps to Italy to hide out for awhile and wait for a new job. Soon it arrives in the form of Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), a beautiful fellow assassin. Jack's job is to build her a special custom rifle, which he sets about doing with his usual cold efficiency.

Two people in the village of Castel del Monte complicate things. There is the priest (Paolo Bonacelli), who befriends the strange American who does not seem to need or want friendship, and makes him think about a life beyond the one he knows. And Jack's visits to Clara (Violante Placido), a local prostitute, grow more frequent and progressively less businesslike.

The screenplay -- by Rowan Joffe, based on the novel "A Very Private Gentleman" by Martin Booth -- unfolds in a naturalistic way without any artificial stirring of the plot. Director Anton Corbijn ("Control") finds a way to keep the tension at a high edge, even when Jack is doing something as simple as strolling down the cobblestone street or sipping coffee in a cafe.

The relationship with Clara is typical of this modus operandi. When we first see her, seductively stripping nude for her customer, we think she's just a throwaway character, a demonstration of Jack's need to satisfy basic urges. But he keeps going back to her, and soon she seeks him out on her own, and to our surprise -- and Jack's -- Clara becomes important.

Still, the tension is always there. Even as he's romancing her, Jack suspects Clara of being a plant sent to kill him. A lovely secluded picnic turns into a stomach-churning ticking time bomb.

"The American" falls into the thriller category, but its true thrills are in what happens in between the gunfire.

3.5 stars out of four

No comments:

Post a Comment