“You have the hands of a craftsman, not an artist,” says a friendly village priest (Paolo Bonacelli) to an American expatriate whose identity is ambiguous but whose face is recognizable to the rest of us as George Clooney’s. This fellow, temporarily assuming the name Edward, having been Jack before, but known to two different women as Mr Butterfly, has showed up in a picturesque town in Abruzzo, a mountainous region east of Rome, where he’s pretending to be a photographer. His actual profession, though never quite specified, is more malevolent, and he is currently working on a commission to supply a sexy assassin (Thekla Reuten) with a custom-made weapon.
A good deal of The American, directed by Anton Corbijn from a script by Rowan Joffe (adapted from the novel A Very Private Gentleman, by Martin Booth), is devoted to the patient examination of Mr Butterfly at work. He plies his trade with meticulous care, weighing, measuring, disassembling and tweaking his special gun with artisanal devotion. And the virtues of the film itself are those of craft rather than art. Its precision is impressive and fussy rather than invigorating. It is a reasonably skillful exercise in genre and style, a well-made vessel containing nothing in particular, though some of its features — European setting, slow pacing, full-frontal female nudity — are more evocative of the art house than of the multiplex.
Corbijn, a photographer who turned to filmmaking with Control, his moody and measured biography of Ian Curtis, lead singer of the Manchester post-punk band Joy Division, has an eye for natural beauty and a practiced sense of composition. Frame by frame — eagle-eye views of red-tile roofs and glimpses down narrow stone passageways; sex scenes and shots of Clooney glumly drinking coffee — The American is never less than gorgeous. And the oblique approach it takes to what is a fairly standard plot creates a mood of suspense quickened by the accelerated heartbeat of Herbert Gronemeyer’s unobtrusive music.
DIRECTED BY: Anton Corbijn
STARRING: George Clooney (Jack/Edward), Thekla Reuten (Mathilde), Paolo Bona-celli (Father Benedetto), Violante Placido (Clara), Johan Leysen (Pavel)
RUNNING TIME: 105 MINUTES
TAIWAN RELEASE: TODAY
A quiet, brooding sense of menace settles in right at the beginning, which finds Clooney, his silver hair complemented by a snowy beard, rusticating in the snowy Swedish countryside. His idyll is disrupted by homicide, and with the help of a sinister gentleman named Pavel (Johan Leysen), our newly clean-shaven American settles in Italy.
In addition to the priest, he befriends Clara, a prostitute — played by an actress with the splendidly oxymoronic name Violante Placido — who is so stirred by his bedroom prowess that she stops charging him and asks him out for dinner instead. (Some guys get all the breaks.) Meanwhile his business dealings with his client carry a sexual undercurrent that the American may or may not notice.
It is, in general, hard to fathom what he sees or thinks, which is both the point and a bit of a problem. Jack, or Edward, or Butterfly (he’s called that because of a tattoo between his shoulder blades and also because of a more mysterious totemic connection to the insect) is a familiar enough movie type. He’s the lone gunslinger, the masterless samurai, the silent killer whose professional life exacts a toll on his spirit. He wants to leave behind his life of violence and drifting —“I’m out,” he says at one point, in case we were wondering — and to find the kind of human connection that his temperament and his job have denied him up to now.