Killing is a science, and assassination is an activity that is as much about planning and logistics as it is about the grim act itself. That’s the sentiment that lies at the heart of The American, Anton Corbijn’s slow-burning drama thriller.
Characters talk at length about the recoil of guns and the velocity of bullets, of sound suppression and the tolerances of tiny screws. Weapons are endlessly tested, fiddled with, re-adjusted and then tested again.
In two of The American’s most mesmerising scenes, George Clooney’s careworn assassin, Jack, snaps a sniper rifle together with infinite care, checking the action and movement of every individual part, before improvising his own makeshift silencer with the dexterity of a Swiss watchmaker.
Clooney’s Jack is a lonely, distant character who says little, largely because he can’t afford to. Having lost one love interest during an attempted hit from a group of Swedish killers, he’s advised by his superior (a lizard-like Johan Leysen), “Don’t make any friends.”
Holed up in a rural town in northern Italy, Jack goes about completing his final mission, an apparently simple task of constructing a custom rifle that can fire rapidly and quietly over a long distance. The act of killing won’t be Jack’s. Instead, the task will be carried out by the cold, enigmatic Mathilde (an oddly frightening Thekla Reuten). Once the rifle’s handed over, Jack’s free to retire.
One of the few contemporary Hollywood actors capable of carrying off the kind of silent, macho charisma exuded by old-time stars such as Lee Marvin, Clooney is perfect as the ageing, paranoid assassin whose vocation leaves no room for relationships.
Like the crumbling streets of stone around him, Clooney’s character is tired yet noble, like an ageing samurai warrior, monosyllabic, yet capable of conveying equal parts menace and distrust with a single glance. This is undoubtedly Clooney’s finest performance since Syriana or Michael Clayton, and he plays the part with skill and commitment.
Jack’s coldness is perfectly counterbalanced by Paolo Bonacelli’s warm performance as Father Benedetto, a man of God with a dark secret of his own.
Anton Corbijn’s direction, aided by Martin Ruhe’s startling cinematography, is quietly beautiful, and the unmistakeable remoteness of its rural Italian setting is captured down to the tiniest detail, from the polite nosiness of its inhabitants to the desolate winter landscape that surrounds them.
Long periods of silence are punctuated by occasional flashes of low-key, startling violence. Startling not because of their gore or brutality, but because of their mundanity. Like a butcher slaughtering cattle, The American’s killings are carried out with muted thuds and a casual, chillingly indifferent air.
The American is so well scripted and shot, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook just how clichéd and generic much of its story is. The thriller genre is filled to bursting point with the good-hearted hookers and one-last-job assassins found here, and it’s to screenwriter Rowan Joffe’s credit that he’s taken a stock premise and invested it with such depth.
Possibly the most understated (and, some might argue, uneventful) thrillers in recent years, The American is an intelligent and often tense study of an anxious, sullen assassin and the toll that years of killing have taken on him.
Corbijn’s film slowly, fastidiously dissects the mechanical process of murder with all the precision of its central character constructing his gun. And for that reason alone, The American is one of the most arresting and well-crafted dramas I’ve seen this year.
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