Movies: The American * * *
(15A, General release)
In one of the more compelling opening sequences I've seen, Anton Corbijn's The American pans through a wintry Swedish forest before ushering us into the cosy surrounds of a log cabin, where a couple caress in front of a roaring fire.
The man is George Clooney, but this is no glib romance and soon the loving will be rudely interrupted by violence. And these opening scenes leave us in no doubt that Clooney's character is a morally dubious individual.
Jack is an assassin for hire and when he reappears in Rome after killing a number of assailants, he meets up with a shadowy character called Pavel (Johan Leysen). Pavel seems to be some kind of authority figure, because after questioning Jack about the events in Sweden, he hands him the keys to a car and tells him to go and hide out in the mountainous Abruzzo region.
After pitching up in a town called Castel del Monte, Jack lies low and divides his time between conversing with the town's convivial priest and making tension-reducing visits to the local brothel.
There he meets and begins to fall in love with a prostitute called Clara (Violante Placido). In one of this film's many flirtations with cliché, Clara is so moved by Jack's love-making expertise that she decides to stop charging him (and he's a big tipper) and starts dating him instead. Jack even begins to dream of hanging up his gun altogether, but Pavel has other plans.
During one of their typically terse phone conversations, Pavel tells Jack about a job he wants him to do. A glamorous woman called Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) turns up, and asks Jack to make her a high-spec, untraceable gun. This will obviously be used in an assassination, but the money's good, so Jack goes to work.
We watch him craft a sniper's rifle and silencer from various odds and ends, honing the weapon as though it were a precious artefact. But Mathilde seems to know more than she's letting on, and meanwhile a Scandinavian-looking gent has arrived in town and is looking for someone.
The American sets out to create an atmosphere of simmering paranoia and tension. It evokes the low-key spy and crime thrillers of the late 60s and early 70s, the kinds of films that used to star the likes of Steve McQueen and Robert Redford and -- in Europe -- Alain Delon. Moodiness is the prevailing note, and the script is so spare that when Clooney or one of the other characters occasionally says something, you jump in your seat.
Mr Corbijn, a celebrated rock photographer who achieved considerable acclaim with his 2008 feature debut Control, certainly knows how to compose a handsome shot. He uses the mountains of Abruzzo as a fitting backdrop for his existential tale, and his film is rarely less than gorgeous to behold. The problem is it looks a more substantial work than it actually is.
Having set itself up with a gripping opening that leaves us expecting to be confronted by a deeply ambivalent character, we are presented instead with not very much character at all.
Presumably intended to be a tortured soul, Clooney's Jack mainly looks grumpy, and tired, and we find out so little about him that it's very hard to care. After that tense opening the film abandons action until its last few minutes, and what started as a thriller becomes a slow and painfully self-conscious arthouse movie.
The American looks great, but in the end is about an inch deep. And if it has a theme, someone will have to explain it to me. George's character remains a frustrating vacuum, and even protracted sex scenes fail to tell us any more about him than the fact that he's probably heterosexual.
I ended up yearning for him to stop making guns and start using them, but mostly I yearned in vain.