Execution is an art form.
Image: Focus FeaturesWhen I saw the trailer for The American, I immediately thought of Jim Jarmusch’s film The Limits of Control, which I very much wanted to like. However, that self-proclaimed “inaction movie” was so wilfully uneventful that I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Knowing that The American was a slow drama, rather than a bullet-riddled action thriller, I took my seat with less enthusiasm than this collaboration between Anton Corbijn (Control) and George Clooney deserved.
Clooney plays Jack, an American hit-man who heads to Rome after turning the tables on a pair of killers in Sweden. His employer instructs him to lay low in a small hilltop town and wait for an assignment. It’s not long before he’s told to build a rifle for the beautiful Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), but the laying low will prove difficult.
Well, yes, The American is slow but not unbearably so; the pace would best be described as leisurely. Things do happen, and there is even the occasional gunfight. But mostly director Corbijn is content to let the story, such as there is, play out at its own speed. After a brief prologue in Swedish snow, the film takes place in a beautiful Italian town. During the day, it is sunny and pristine. At night, the winding, narrow streets are empty and dark, with orange streetlights providing the only colour, as Jack constantly checks over his shoulder to see if he’s being followed.
Clooney gives another in a series of superb performances. We are shown early on that Jack is cold and ruthless. However, during the course of the film, we see that this is a personality that he has been forced to cultivate. As Jack falls for prostitute Clara (Violante Placido), we see his defences slowly, and unwillingly, begin to crumble. Jack is also a character who knows he’s running out of time. When he asks his boss how the Swedish hit men found him, he is simply told that he’s lost his edge. He’s cold, but he’s also scared and lonely. Meanwhile, both Reuten and Placido are excellent as the two women bewitching Jack.
There’s not a lot in the script that’s especially original. Based on the novel “A Very Private Gentleman” by Martin Booth, it’s a story we’re familiar with. The ageing killer who doesn’t know how to do anything else, who is unsure who to trust anymore, who may have one last shot at happiness with the local prostitute. There’s even the padre (Paolo Bonacelli) who sees him for who he truly is and tries to get him to confess his sins. But most of the time Corbijn is playing with these tropes. It’s what Jack never says that’s interesting. The director is also aware that his film plays out like a Western. In one scene the bar’s television is playing Once Upon a Time in the West.
Sometimes the more clichéd elements work against it (there’s at least one too many scenes with the priest), and it’s definitely too slow-moving for some audiences. But if you’ve got the patience, this is well worth your time.
An excellent, slow-burn drama with a sure-to-be underappreciated performance from Clooney.