This is a cold movie. No, it’s a FREEZING cold movie! (WARNING: some story spoilers ahead…)
The main character is steel cold. It opens up with a literally cold snowy scene. The warmest human relationship is a one-night stand at an Italian bordello (at least until Act 3).
SIDEBAR: There was another movie with a similar name that I watched years ago: THE UGLY AMERICAN (1963) with Marlon Brando. That was a warm, pulsing affair. Many upset characters. Here, people don’t even get upset. They just shoot one another.
There are so many things we don’t know about the story line…
Who is this guy Jack (George Clooney), a ferocious killing machine? We know zip about his history and background. He is just a muscle holding a weapon, even in his sleep.
Is he a freelancer? We don’t know.
Is he CIA? We don’t know.
He only admits to being an “American.” That’s all we know.
There’s another thing we get to know by Act 2: Jack is not as good as he’s used to be — at least that’s what his “boss” (?) or “handler” (?) is saying over the phone.
The film opens in the wilds of Sweden, with one of those unforgettable “everything is lovely — oops!” scenes… Three people die, one totally innocent… Is Jack losing his touch? And more importantly: why are they (who are “they”?) trying to kill Jack? We know nothing. It’s an enigma wrapped inside a mystery.
Jack takes refuge in a small mountain village in Italy, trying to throw off his Swedish avengers. And for the most of the movie we see him do two things: prepare a weapon that a client orders, and eliminate those who followed him all the way to this peaceful little picturesque village suspended in its medieval slumber.
Oh, and a third thing: Jack meets Clara (Violante Placido), a girl-next-door looker he meets at a whore house (do medieval villages have whore houses? – I doubt it). Then they become lovers – almost, since as I said before, even love is served on ice in this movie.
I’ve never seen George Clooney this paranoid in any of his films. In one memorable picnic scene, I swear to god his face DARKENS with fear as we watch… I have no idea how he did that but chalk it up for a veteran actor’s bag of tricks.
The end is a Classical Greek Tragedy kind of ending. The hero… so close to the sun… so close to salvation and redemption…
Without giving the end away, let me tell you this much: Jack is still emancipated from the cold and bloody bonds of his worldly misdeeds but in an aesthetical and metaphorical way, thanks to the Director Anton Corbijn.
So, why did I love this movie? One word – directing. Corbijn is a true student of Hitchcock. Those open-area wide-angle shots with no soundtrack are truly menacing and reminded me of similar scenes in FRENZY (1972), shall we say.
Second reason, again related to directing, is the way Corbijn approaches the whole idea of “narrative” and “story.” If with a “story” what you understand is a series of moments each following the other seamlessly like the wagons of a train, you are in for an education.
In THE AMERICAN there are many moments, many scenes that you have no idea where they’re leading to. And that’s the delight of this cold thriller.
This is one movie where the director is saying “we are not playing with your rules of what constitutes a story – welcome to my house of broken moments and nothing’s-happening transitions.”
In that sense, THE AMERICAN is a philosophical exercise on what constitutes “The Reality.” Can we tell what’s going on inside a man by just watching what’s going on outside of him? Probably that’s the deeper focus that we shouldn’t miss when watching THE AMERICAN.
Cold but recommended like a plate of chilled fine caviar.