I love movies about men who are haunted.
Doesn’t really matter which part of the process, either. A film about a guy going through whatever it is that will haunt him? The moment of his ruin played out as drama? Sure. I’m in. Or a movie about a guy just after the trauma, trying to live through it, struggling. I’m in. Or a movie about a guy who’s been haunted so long he’s become a ghost himself. All of that seems like fertile dramatic ground to me.
“The American” is about a man who has obviously done many terrible things before the film begins. But he’s left that behind. He’s got a girl. He’s got a private place. Away from it all. And before the film’s opening title comes up, all of that will be stripped away from him, and he’ll be on the road, on his way to someplace he can hide, someplace he can go to ground and wait to figure out who’s trying to kill him. Rowan Joffe’s screenplay, adapted from a book by Martin Booth, is economical, just sentimental enough to be affecting, and smart.
It’s smart because it knows that the answer of who is trying to kill him doesn’t matter. What matters is that the man, the American, most often known as Mr. Butterfly, or Jack Sometimes Edward, is tired. He’s got amazing skills. He’s able to take care of things with ruthless efficiency. He’s not a showboat fighter. Don’t expect to see George Clooney doing kung-fu or jumping around or anything. He gets in close and he gets it done. People get hurt. He’s cut from the sort of cloth that Travis McGee or Jack Reacher are cut. Knights in the wrong age, ready and willing to get things done.
While he’s hiding out, his friend and contact Pavel (Johan Leysen) is working to find out who sent the killers to Sweden, and he’s also looking for work to keep Mr. Butterfly busy in the meantime. He puts him together with Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), another professional. She’s got a kill to make and he’s going to build her a custom weapon inside the country so she can do it. Their meetings are part flirtation, part negotiation, and part impending threat as Jack Sometimes Edward begins to worry that she’s not who she claims to be. As Jack Sometimes Edward reflects on the woman he left behind after the opening sequence, he tries to keep things compartmentalized by spending his nights with a whore named Clara (Violante Placido). He’s terrible at it, though, and finds himself falling for her, wanting to take her away.
All of this is played out in the space between scenes, as “The American” is a movie about things unsaid, things under the surface. It is an exercise in sustained tension, and a chance for Clooney to play a very particular type of character. This is a film like a “Point Blank,” a movie about one man, driven through a dangerous situation, navigating a supporting cast of people he may or may not be able to trust, adhering to one simple tenet: survive and punish. People keep finding Jack Sometimes Edward, and he keeps having to kill them. People looking for a “Bourne Identity” style rush will be very disappointed with this movie, but people who are looking for something closer to Soderbergh’s “The Limey” may be very satisfied, indeed.
There’s something else going on in the film worth talking about, because Corbijn’s personality is reflected in the beautiful women who fill this film, wall to wall, nude or nearly nude in most of their running time. He’s got remarkable taste. Irina Bjorkland is the woman whose death at the start of the film remains with Clooney. Thekla Reuten is the woman he’s working with, the one who he’s building the gun for, and she’s what I grew up thinking of as the prototypical European actress. Slim. No-nonsense. Powerfully built. And Violante Placido is the whore he wants to rescue, even though part of him suspects she is bait in a much larger trap. She is all olive skin and lush curves and sex appeal, dark and full-bodied. She reveals herself to Clooney over and over, and there’s a stark invitation inherent in the way she approaches him that is what gets his attention. This character’s one weakness… the one rule he can’t follow in the art of self-preservation… is “don’t get close to anyone.” He is too open to women. He lets them past his defenses. We see why, of course, because of the almost absurd level of beauty of each of these women. What man could move past these women without further regard? Because he knows his own weakness, he has to assume that whoever is pursuing him also knows, and so he has to suspect the beautiful women even more. It’s almost a tragedy.
Clooney begins to worry that the gun he’s building is going to be used on him. That alone made the middle section of the film really resonate for me. There are long stretches of the movie that are just made up of him working on this weapon, fine-tuning it. Making it perfect. And the whole time, he’s got this nagging thought: “She could use this on me.” It’s this lovely existential crisis that plays out over the course of the film, never overstated, but really interesting and well-played by Clooney, who I think does great work here. Why the hell isn’t Fox throwing trucks full of money at him to play Travis McGee for the rest of his life? 21 books. Every single one of them great. Clooney could make McGee movies until he just didn’t feel like making movies anymore, and he could get directors he loves to come and play and each do one and it could be AWESOME. Harumph.
I think “The American” never quite kicks into high gear, and it’s not an instant classic or a towering triumph or anything hyperbolic. It’s a solid, somber, serious little film, gorgeously composed in widescreen by Corbijn, whose eye is just impeccable. It works as a hard-hearted character study about a man of violence looking for an exit from that life. And because it keeps its ambitions modest, I would say it is entirely successful at those ambitions, and worth your time this weekend.
“The American” opens in theaters everywhere September 1st.
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