Watching the trailer for The American, you'd be forgiven for thinking that George Clooney's latest effort is a taut thriller along the lines of the Bourne movies, or even something akin to a James Bond romp.
But it isn't.
Oh, there's some action here and there. And the storyline is taut—and fraught—with tension. Mostly, though, The American is a slow-moving psychological profile of a professional assassin who's grown tired of his violent and isolated existence. Think of it as an art-house take on Bond's most tormented moments—played in super, super slow motion.
The plot is simple. After unknown assailants try to take out Clooney's character, Jack, in Sweden, his handler tells him to head to Italy, lie low and await further instructions.
Jack (who also goes by Edward, for no apparent reason) complies, ending up in the fortress-like village of Castel del Monte in Italy's mountainous Abruzzo region. Soon the promised instructions arrive. "I've got a job for you," his boss, Pavel, instructs. "A custom fit. You don't even have to pull the trigger." The job, it turns out, consists of machining a highly sophisticated sniper rifle for a highly gorgeous woman named Mathilde. She provides the specifications. And Jack starts crafting the rifle with all manner of parts he sources from the surrounding area.
OK. It's not quite that simple. Pavel also instructs Jack, "Above all, don't make any friends." And Jack has a much harder time complying with that command.
A trip to a brothel yields more than just sex (although there is that) when Jack falls for a prostitute named Clara. And a nosey priest named Father Benedetto won't leave the clandestine munitions maker alone. The priest doesn't believe Jack's cover story, that he's a professional photographer, for a moment. Nor does he have any hesitation when it comes to proffering existential observations about the shabby state of Jack's sin-stained soul.
Jack already knows full well how tattered his life is. And it seems he's almost ready to hang up his trench coat for good after he completes this one last job. If, that is, the mysterious interlopers still trying to kill him don't end his career in a completely different way.
Jack is a man of few words, and The American is hardly a message movie. Still, the wincing, world-weary expressions he increasingly wears as he works on the weapon suggest that Jack has hit the wall as a hit man.
[Spoiler Warning] That suspicion is confirmed when Jack tells his enigmatic handler near the conclusion, "I'll make the delivery, and then I'm out." He then tells Clara to rendezvous with him at a secret location and that he's ready to be with her "forever." It's a commitment he's clearly never been willing or able to make to any woman before.
Father Benedetto takes a sincere interest in Jack, and he delivers a surprising number of blunt spiritual messages regarding God, love, thankfulness, sin, hell and confession. …
In Jack's first conversation with Benedetto, the man tells him, "A priest sees everything." Among other things, Benedetto realizes that Jack's story doesn't add up and he offers him a father-like relationship that the assassin both bristles at and is attracted to. In their next conversation, the priest tells him, "All the sheep in my flock are dear to me, but some are dearer than others, especially those who've lost their way." It's clear he sees Jack as one of those lost sheep. And he goes on to tell Jack, "A man can be rich if he has God in his heart." Jack wearily replies, "I don't think God's very interested in me, father."
That kind of spiritual discourse continues in their next encounter, a chance early morning meeting shortly after Jack has killed another assassin who was hunting him. The priest tells Jack that he likes to get up to "thank God for all the favors He has granted me." Then he adds, "And I ask Him to look after sinners." Jack counters, "We're all sinners." Benedetto agrees but goes on, saying, "Some more than others. You've done much sinning, and you still do." The father asks Jack if he wants to confess his sins—he doesn't—then ends up confessing his own sexual indiscretions from years past.
As the conversation winds down, the priest gets to the essence of Jack's spiritual ailment: a lack of love. "You cannot doubt the existence of hell," Benedetto says. "You live in it. It is a place without love." While the priest never clearly spells out anything approximating a gospel plan of salvation, it seems clear he believes that God's love and love from other people are what Jack really needs.
A wake for a murdered prostitute shows mourners carrying a large statue of Mary surrounded by statues of lesser saints who are obviously praying to her.
During Jack's first encounter with Clara at the brothel, the camera shows her disrobing. And it doesn't look away from her full-frontal nudity. A graphic and drawn-out sex scene involves extensive nudity, explicit groping (with hands and mouths), and multiple positions and movements. Oral sex is also implied. Clara remains naked afterwards, and the camera again lingers throughout their post-coital cigarette and conversation.
A picnic at a secluded riverside location leads to Clara stripping down to a see-through g-string. She's topless for much of the picnic. Jack is seen with a towel wrapped around his waist after he gets out of the shower. And his bare backside is partially visible after he gets out of bed with Clara. The opening scene pictures the bare rear of another female lover. Three scantily clad prostitutes (one wearing little more than pasties) at the brothel try to talk Jack into becoming their customer, too. A mechanic's calendar boasts a topless woman.
Somewhere in his sexual relationship with Clara, it's clear that Jack goes from being a "customer" to a boyfriend. Accordingly, she stops charging him for her "services." But she continues to turn tricks, something Jack never comments on.
Played out as if it was some sort of sexual foreplay mixed up with a deadly weapon, Jack and Mathilde test the new rifle together. Among other things, she asks him to go up on a hillside and shoot it toward her so she can evaluate how well the muzzle suppressor is dispersing sound.
In a conversation with Father Benedetto, Jack realizes that the priest's affection for certain congregants is because they are in fact his illegitimate children. The priest admits this, but minimizes it by reinforcing the idea that his mistakes were made far in the past.
In the opening scene, Jack shoots two snipers who are trying to kill him. He then shoots his lover in the back and kills her, too. It's never explained whether Jack's cold-blooded action is because his identity was merely compromised by her or whether he realized that she was the bait used to lure him into a trap. His expression hints that shooting her has grieved him deeply, and he later has nightmares about the killing.
A brief chase scene starts with the death of an innocent bystander on a scooter who gets caught in pistol crossfire. It concludes with tires getting shot out and an accident. Jack then breaks his assailant's neck to make it look as if the crash killed him.
By film's end, two other would-be killers get taken out by gunfire. One of them suffers a gaping wound to the side of his head and falls from a rooftop. Jack gets shot as well, and we see blood on his hands.
Crude or Profane Language
One use each of the f-word, the s-word and "h‑‑‑."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Wine and shots make appearances throughout the film. Father Benedetto is especially fond of brandy.
"The theme of The American," according to director Anton Corbijn, "[is] of a loner trying to find redemption from the deeds he's done. … [It deals with] the idea of trying to change one's life; how can you maybe make good after doing wrong? Can you overcome things that might be in you which define you?"
Based loosely on Martin Booth's 1990 novel A Very Quiet Gentleman, the film is a slow-moving yet engaging thriller that does indeed grapple with the possibility of change if not exactly redemption. Those themes are most strongly evident when Father Benedetto tries to help Jack see that there might be hope for him yet—hope that depends upon opening his heart to relationship with God and other people in a way he's never done before.
By the film's conclusion, it could be argued that Jack is taking baby steps in that direction as he ponders trading what started as a transactional sexual relationship with a prostitute for something more permanent.
The problem, however—and it's a big one—is that Jack has lived such an immoral existence for so long that trying to locate his soul again is tough business. There's immense darkness to be grappled with in his heart … darkness that Corbijn goes to great lengths to illustrate, especially when it comes to the indulgent way he's chosen to let the camera obsess over Clara's frequently nude form.