erik lundegaard


The American (2010)


One imagines they called it “The American” only because “The Quiet American” was taken.

This is one quiet action film. It’s more of a suspense film. The suspense is often: What’s he doing? Who’s that guy? What the hell is going on? Apparently American moviegoers have complained. I’m not surprised. This is a Labor Day movie that requires work, and most Americans go to the movies to not work, to justify their preconceptions, to strengthen their worldview. “Give me a hero who’s handsome and knows everything and shoots second and wins, and let me eat my bucket of popcorn and slurp my soda and imagine I’m him.”

Well, we got handsome anyway.

Last January, Terrence Rafferty had a good piece on George Clooney in The New York Times, in which, of Clooney’s recent roles, he wrote: “He works the territory of 21st-century American normality, playing—now, at 48—middle-aged men who are good at what they do and getting by, for the moment, but are beginning to feel stirrings of doubt and dread.”

I’d go further. The longer Clooney’s been a star in Hollywood, the more he’s played the cool, distant professional in an unethical business who is thinking of escape, of saving what’s left of his soul. Think “Syrianna,” “Michael Clayton,” “Up in the Air” and now “The American.” I don’t want to be an assassin, a fixer, a man who fires people, an assassin. Do we add movie star to the list? Are these roles a cry for help? Maybe it’s George Clooney who is the cool, distant professional in an unethical business who wants to save what’s left of his soul.

As “The American” starts, Jack (Clooney) seems to be living it up: a cozy, snow-bound cabin, a glass of wine, a naked Swedish woman on the bed. Most men would be happy, but he seems distant. The camera shots aren’t lurid but quiet and serious. There’s already an air of dread.

The two bundle up and go for a walk out on the snow-bound frozen lake. It’s beautiful. Then we get a perspective as if from someone watching them in the nearby woods. A second later, Jack sees footprints in the snow. He’s suddenly on. He looks up, around, then pulls Ingrid (Irina Björklund) to the cover of a nearby rock just as, bewwww!, the first bullet hits the rock. Ingrid is startled and scared, and even more startled and scared when Jack pulls out a gun and shoots the assassin. “Jack?” she says. “Jack, is he dead?” He gives her orders. “Go to the cabin and call the police!” I’m thinking he’ll use this opportunity to get away. Nope. She takes two steps in the snow and he puts a bullet into the back of her head. Later he kills the second assassin, steals his car, travels to Rome, calls the home office. He and Pavel (Johan Leysen) use shorthand. “It’s Jack. I’m here.” They meet at a pasticceria and use more shorthand. “Who was the girl?” Pavel asks. “A friend... She had nothing to do with it.”

We suspected as much but it’s still a shock to hear him say it. He killed her then for what? To save himself? To save his agency? His cause? He seems like a man without agency or cause. He seems like a man full of dread and doubt who keeps doing what he’s doing because he’s on automatic. Pavel makes arrangements for Jack to disappear into a small Italian town, then gives one last piece of advice. “Don’t make any friends, Jack,” he says.

That’s our set-up. A quiet American, traveling through small Italian towns, suspecting everyone, not making friends. It’s a tough set-up. A man needs something to play off of. Drama needs a second actor on the stage. Clooney’s just got... what? His suspicions. He even suspects Pavel. The cell phone he’s given he throws into a river. He switches small Italian towns. You know those modern, high-tech secret agents who can track villains around the world using high-tech gadgets? While running furiously? Jack’s old school. He makes calls from rusty pay phones, reads The International Herald-Tribune in newspaper form, collects car parts to make his weapons. He’s off the grid. Safer there. The movie is based on a 1990 novel by British author Martin Booth called “A Very Private Gentleman,” and that’s what he is. Though more distant than private, more man than gentle.

But we’re social animals. We need. Jack begins to frequent a brothel. Same woman: Clara (Violante Placido). He keeps running into the local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who asks questions in heavily accented Italian. He is curious about this man who is curious about nothing. He encapsulates Jack’s country, my country, in a sentence. “You are American,” he tells Jack. “You think you can escape history.”

Eventually the home office gives him another job. He doesn’t have to kill—apparently he doesn’t want to kill—he just has to make a weapon for another assassin, named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), who’ll do the killing. She shows up, tests the weapon in some fields, requests refinements. She seems a female version of Jack: attractive, distant, highly professional. One senses Jack’s interest, particularly when, back in the brothel, Clara says he seems different. Is he thinking about something? “Or someone?” she asks with a smile. But the movie doesn’t go there. He spends more time with Clara, and she with him. Is she the luckiest hooker in the world? Not only does her john look like George Clooney but he goes down on her. He takes her out to dinner. They have this conversation:

She: Can I ask you something?
He: Sure.
She: Are you married?
He: No.
She: I was sure that was your secret.
He: Why do I have to have a secret?
She: You are a nice man, have a secret.

He suspects her. He suspects Father Benedetto, too, but accepts a dinner invitation to his house, and gets spare parts from one of his wayward flock, Fabio (Filippo Timi), who, we find out later, is actually the Father’s son. We’re all sinners. We all have secrets.

Where can the story go? That’s the question. Where can Jack go? Toward humanity? Or do his suspicions get the better of him? In a later scene, reminiscent of the first, he nearly kills Clara during a picnic by a waterfall, then holds her close. Maybe this is when he begins to change. It helps that Clara is innocent. But then so was Ingrid.

So Jack moves toward humanity, toward love for Clara, and away from his dirty business. From another rusty pay phone he tells Pavel he’ll make the drop to Mathilde but then he’s out. Pause. “OK, Jack,” Pavel says. “You’re out.” We’ve seen enough of these movies to know the shorthand. Out = dead, doesn’t it? Or are we being paranoid? The drop is done at a roadside cafe. Two tough guys sit by a window. A waitress comes by, then Mathilde, who leaves to check the weapon in a bathroom. Then the two men leave. Then the waitress leaves. Jack is alone in middle of the cafe. Is he alarmed? We are. Get out of there! He does. He meets Mathilde outside the bathroom rather than inside the cafe. They say their goodbyes as a busload of middle-school futbol players pulls up and unloads.

Were we being paranoid? Nope. Pavel later chastises Mathilde for not killing Jack and she pleads a lack of opportunity. But she’ll use the weapon he made to kill him.

Question: Was Jack always constructing the means of his own death? Or did they only target him once he wanted out?

Follow-up question: Did he sabotage the weapon because he was tired of the killing, all killings, or because he knew they would target him? The home office always cleans up around its messes and he knows his mind is one messy place.

I think screenwriter Rowan Joffe and director Anton Corbijn make a mistake bringing Pavel to the small Italian town for the killing. Pavel seems a guy tied to his home office. He doesn’t go out into the field, and certainly not when a killing is underway. So once the weapon backfires and Mathilde dies we know his real purpose there. He’s the assassin now. Sure enough, after hearing Mathilde’s final words (“Who do you work for?” he asks. “ you” she responds), Jack walks down a small Italian street, alone, senses something, turns and fires. Pavel drops, bullet holes in his stomach and forehead. But weren’t three shots fired? Was Jack hit? Corbijn keeps the camera close so we’re not sure, but Jack seems to be walking unsteadily, and, yes, in the car, he’s sweating too much. Yes, he’s been shot. Yes, he’s about to die. But he needs to see Clara one last time.

One of the criticisms of the film is that it’s too brooding, too gloomy, and maybe it is, but what does one expect from a director who photographed this famously gloomy album cover? Besides, the film was consistent in its tone. It reflected its protagonist’s mood.

There are small joys here: the conversations with the old priest, who’s got a great face, and the quiet, efficient way Jack works. Jack is passing himself off as a travel photographer, but the priest surmises, “You have the hands of a craftsman, not an artist,” and he’s right. That’s one of my takeaways from the film: the scenes of Jack expertly building this weapon. The doing of the thing to see if it can be done.

No, the problem isn’t the mood but the resolution: Pavel showing up and Jack getting shot and dying. How much more effective if Jack had gotten away? Because there is no away. He’d still spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. Worse, he’d have something (Clara) that he cared about. Worse, the two might have several things (kids) that they cared about. It wouldn’t get any better for Jack, it would only get worse. Some suggestion of this in the final shot would’ve been effective, I think.

I’ll take the end-end, though. Throughout the film, Clara and Mathilde call him “Mr. Butterfly” for the butterfly tattoo on his upper back; and in the final distant shot by the waterfall, Jack’s car rolled to a stop by a tree, Jack dying inside, we see a small white butterfly move up against the darkness of the tree. Is it too much? I liked it. It was subtle enough and implied a lot. After a lifetime of brutality, some small fragile thing was finally set free.

—September 9, 2010

© 2010 Erik Lundegaard