“The American” is a difficult transaction to agree to. On the surface, this deal, based on Martin Booth’s 1990 novel “A Very Private Gentleman”, has promise — an accessible plot set in the lush Abruzzo region of Italy, gritty shots often populated by beautiful women, and George Clooney. But look more closely at the fine print, and you realize just how confused and hollow this film is.
As first impressions go, there is little not to like about the product on display. Clooney plays a professional assassin known alternately as Jack, Edward, and Mr. Butterfly. His handler (played by Johan Leysen) arranges for him to make a very particular sort of rifle for another malevolent yet dashing operator (Thekla Reuten). Beyond this, Jack becomes attached to a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), who falls in love with him precisely because he treats everything as a commercial transactio
Many facets of Jack’s character are on display, yet there is no consistent identity at the heart of it all. Those he meets in town instantly brand him l’Americano for the cold and rigid way he acts; director Anton Corbijn is concerned with showing the alienation that results. The local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) recognizes this, when he observes to Jack: “You cannot doubt the existence of hell; you already live in it.” But Clooney’s terse and controlled performance also makes clear that Jack gives a damn about the world around him. This is the American paradox: Jack can see more in the world, can envision a better future, but is too myopic to live in anything but a frustrating existence.
Two images seem to capture the uneasy tension at work in the film: guns and butterflies. The gun that Jack meticulously crafts, as well as the many handguns that the characters wield, represents all that is mechanical and brutal in the world. In contrast, the butterfly, both literal and tattooed on Jack’s back, conveys a sense of goodness, the ability of the heart to overcome programmatic responses.
What makes “The American” problematic is that it struggles to settle on one image to champion over the other. Instead, it reverts to an unsatisfying cynicism that Jack at one point articulates through the line, “All men are sinners.”
At least the film provides a kind of thrill. Jagging back and forth, the plot is refreshing — welcome relief from the plethora of so-called thrillers that hardly thrill. The score also works. Its moody chords and progressions, seemingly inspired by recent Bond films, play well with the earthly visual palette of the film, punctuated as it is occasionally by stark white or red lighting.
The film still exasperates its audience because it suffers from the same problem Jake does: a lack of commitment to a particular cause. Just as Jake’s life is destabilized because he is torn between modes of behavior, so the film seems unsure whether or not to stick to routine or veer toward emotional illogic. Scenes of tenderness are wedged awkwardly between depictions of machinery — the film tries to weave together these two disparate ideals and is not quite successful.
While it has the capacity to disturb, “The American” is ultimately too ambiguous to resonate. Coherent motivation is missing, both in the actions of characters and the film itself. The disappointing irony of the film is that it has not learnt the very lesson it tries to teach.