Anton Corbijn was destined to compose a great second film. The Dutch photographer-turned-director made a splash in 2007 with his terrific Ian Curtis biopic, Control. Now, he has crafted a sexy and taught European thriller based on Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman.
George Clooney is Jack, an aging hitman on the run from a group of murderous Swedes. Before retiring, Jack accepts one last mission to supply an assassin, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), with a special rifle. Clooney plays his character of walking contradictions with an alternating intensity and sensitivity that registers onscreen with a delightful intricacy. Clooney’s mercurial performance is his finest work yet.
Corbijn’s intuitive sense of scale and composition create an unforgettable regard for the remote Abruzzo region of Italy. It’s a unique region of Italian culture where, in this case, earthy romance and unseen danger collide. His emphasis on silence over sound gives the film a refreshing sense of time and space. During a year when Scorsese and Polanski have each delivered incredibly lush thrillers, it says a lot that The American surpasses them both on a compositional level. The American is the perfect thriller.
One of the film’s best aspects is its vibrant female characters. That one is an heir apparent to Jack’s job, and the other (Carla, played by Violente Placido) a prostitute with a disarming charm, sets up a confusing synergy for Jack. We know from the film’s stylish and disquieting opening sequence in snow-covered Sweden that Jack’s romantic integrity is not to be trusted. Jack has to remind himself not to “make friends” as he travels to Italy. However, years of traveling around the world to kill for money and use women has made him vulnerable. He’s not quite burned out, but he’s on the brink.
In an especially absorbing scene, Jack takes Mathilde to a secluded wooded area with tall reeds for her to test out the rifle he has painstakingly built for her. Jack is visibly taken aback by her depth of gun knowledge. He instinctively sets his stopwatch to time her as she assembles the rifle with blinding speed. Mathilde’s polished skill and methodical execution makes him nervous as he notes her every move.
During a nocturnal visit with Clara, Jack tells her, “I’m here to get pleasure, not give it.” The statement is an obvious lie under the particular circumstances. It’s a fib similar to one he tells Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), the priest to whom he categorically states that he’s “not good with machines.” The lies Jack imparts are well-rehearsed defense mechanisms he uses to keep others off balance. Some, like the one he tells Clara, he even believes himself.
George Clooney orchestrates an effortlessly subtle portrayal that transforms in micro-measures. His face registers every detail of carefully poised foreshadowing, which Corbijn supports with camera work that is nothing short of virtuosic. If you had asked me last week who was the best American actor working today, I might have answered Leonardo DiCaprio or Sean Penn. But after seeing The American, I’m convinced it’s Clooney.
However clichéd you might imagine the hit man premise for The American to be, know that it is one of the most sophisticated thrillers you will ever see.
The American (R) ★★★★★