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Monday, Sept. 6, 2010

Slow-Burning Drama in ‘The American’

George Clooney as anti-hero

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George Clooney built his Hollywood reputation by playing likable if roguish roles that allowed his sexy charm to shine. With The American, he pushes against the sort of parts that made his career.

The film opens in a remote, snow-covered corner of Sweden. The camera stares at a cabin under the stars and pine trees before inching slowly forward toward the warm glow of the windows. The deliberate pace is an alert: Jack (Clooney) is enjoying an intimate interlude by the fire with his girlfriend, but something wrong is afoot. Next day, as the couple strolls across a frozen pond, Jack’s eyes sharpen when he notices unfamiliar prints in the snow. Ready for the ambush about to come, he takes down the assassin. And then, telling his shocked girlfriend to go to the cabin and call the police, he quickly executes her with a single bullet to the back of the head. The happy idyll has passed. Regrets? Jack has a few.

We never learn exactly for whom Jack is working or the identity of his taciturn handler. Jack’s nationality is American; evidently, he is a well-paid killer, a professional with guns of every caliber who knows his way with the dangerous trade of surveillance and pursuit. To get him out of harm’s way, his handler sends him to a remote Italian village nestled in cloud-draped mountains. The camera’s vulture-eye view reveals serpentine roads threading upward through a patchwork of fields and rooftops. The town is an ancient place of winding cobblestone alleys and terraces. Jack dwells there in a Spartan apartment, doing pull-ups and awaiting his next assignment.

Clooney plays Jack with the heavy, wary eyes of a man without trust. Steeled against danger, he suspects that death lurks in every doorway and has every reason to fear the worst, given the occupation he has chosen. The dialogue is terse and pregnant with meanings left unsaid. A martial-looking tattoo with a Latin motto suggests Jack learned his trade in special forces. But nothing is certain about his past or future. As the friendly, inquisitive local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) tells him: “You are American and you think you can escape history. You live for the present.”

The priest and a prostitute called Clara (Violante Placido) are his only companions in the town. After easing the weight of lust, Jack finds himself strangely devoted to her. Even a killer needs a life to save. He never confesses to the priest, but seems drawn to the idea of unburdening himself if only by letting his guard down an inch or two with the kindly, perceptive cleric. But on the street Jack casts a wary glance over his shoulder and scrutinizes every passing car. He knows that someone has come to get him.

Director Anton Corbijn (whose career began in 1980s music videos) filmed The American with the beautifully composed, unhurried pace of a ’70s art house picture. The interior life of Jack is undisturbed by chattering dialogue. The many wordless stretches give rise to the imagination and each scene is etched in high relief. The American’s drama builds slowly from Jack’s anxiety and reaches an operatic crescendo at the climax. Will Jack be able to escape the life he has chosen and the hard bargains he has made? He ponders the words of the local priest: “Hell is a place without love. You live in it.”n