In his latest film, George Clooney plays an international hitman variously addressed as "Jack" and "Edward," though we're given little reason to imagine that either name has attached itself to him for long. In the hilly Italian hamlets where the bulk of the story takes place he's known best, and most evocatively, as "The American"—which is also, for simplicity's sake, the title of the picture.
The protagonist's name, in any case, is largely incidental: Clooney is playing Clooney. (As if there were anyone else we'd genuinely prefer him to be.) He works here on the somber edge of his personal spectrum, more Solaris than Leatherheads. But dour or droll, he remains contemporary cinema's most effortless star, and this easy magnetism is the primary engine driving director Anton Corbijn's low-key, European-style thriller. Evoking Steve McQueen rather than his customary Cary Grant, Clooney is less Everyman than every man's idealized self: stoic yet not unfeeling, bruised but unfaltering. Sadness lurks in the crinkle of his crow's feet, but flickers of hope as well.
The film opens with a vision of domestic bliss—or as near a substitute as global assassins are likely to come by: a winter cabin in the Swedish woods; a beautiful woman (Irina Björklund) on a fur-covered bed; two glasses of red wine. But the virgin snow is inevitably to be stained scarlet, and not by cabernet. Men with guns have come for Jack, and while their identities are obscure, their intention is clear enough.
On the heels of this encounter, Jack travels to Rome, where his nonplussed handler, Pavel (a geologically creased Johan Leysen), pledges to determine who "the Swedes" might be and why it is they are trying to kill him. Jack himself, meanwhile, is sent to a medieval town high in the Appenines for safe keeping. Amid its stucco walls and vertiginously cobbled streets, Clooney becomes close—as one presumably must in such environs—with a kindly priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and a comely prostitute (Violante Placido). He also accepts a final job from Pavel, though one of only second-hand lethality: another assassin, "Mathilde" (Thekla Reuten), is in need of a weapon with the "firing capacity of a submachine gun and the range of a rifle," and Jack is commissioned to construct it for her.
The film proceeds unhurriedly from these beginnings. Jack meticulously files and hammers the elements of his customized carbine (though the end product is less amusing than Clooney's foray into erotic metallurgy in Burn After Reading); he pays visits to Clara, the prostitute; he submits to the mild ethical inquiries of Father Benedetto, the priest. Mostly, he remains wary of another attempt on his life. The threat of betrayal looms, but its provenance is unclear: Pavel? Clara? Father Benedetto? Mathilde?
But even as the film assumes the form of a mystery, a conspiracy tale, it does not play as one. There are no clues to be assembled or motives to lay bare. At various moments, Jack views nearly everyone around him with suspicion, the tension racheting expertly. (We have already seen what he is capable of when threatened.) Most of these suspicions prove ill-founded. A few do not.
Cinematic echoes—many conjuring the understated suspense films of the 1970s—are scattered throughout. Jack's cover occupation as a photographer recalls not only director Corbijn, who made his name shooting album covers for U2 and others, but also Faye Dunaway's character in Three Days of the Condor, who, like Jack, shoots landscapes, "not people." It is assuredly no coincidence that the role of Clara went to the lovely Placido, whose mother, Simonetta Stefanelli, played the Italian bride of another American in hiding, Michael Corleone, in The Godfather. And any movie in which rustic afternoon barflies can be found watching Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West can't be all bad. Corbijn, moreover, films the proceedings so gorgeously—the hill-nestled townlets, the sun-dappled streams—that one might be forgiven for thinking that a life of hiding out from Swedish contract killers is not such a bad life after all.
Yet as elegantly as The American goes through its appointed motions, they do not ultimately amount to a great deal. A film so spare in its dialogue needs to offer meaning in its silences, and neither Corbijn nor the script (Rowan Joffe's adaptation of a Martin Booth novel) is quite up to the task. Jack's relationship with Father Benedetto never acquires the requisite moral gravity, nor his tryst with Clara the emotional consequence. And for all of Clooney's quiet charisma, his Jack remains a cipher, balanced awkwardly between the human and iconic.
Early on, the priest explains to Jack, "You have the hands of a craftsman, not an artist." The American is the product of such hands as well: lovely in execution, if somewhat wanting in inspiration. Yet at the close of another hectic, desultory summer of cinema, its modest pleasures offer consolation enough.