THE AMERICAN (***)
This isn't a thriller in the American sense of the term. It certainly has more in common with meticulously paced French thrillers, which were as much character studies as they were genre pieces. Director Anton Corbijn has no intentions of making this film for the ADD crowd accustomed to lightning fast editing and adrenaline-fueled action sequences at regular intervals. He is certainly asking his audience to be patient.
Jack, or Edward, (we're really not sure which name is true) (George Clooney, SYRIANA) is a master assassin. He's as cold and remote as the wintery mountain setting the film begins in. He is being hunted by Swede assassins. His handler Pavel (Johan Leysen, BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF) says he is slipping and needs to lay low. He doesn't like the safe house set up for him, so he changes the plans. One might expect this to really piss off his boss, but Jack is the best at engineering weapons to precise specifications and Pavel has a new client.
Jack meets with Mathilde (Thekla Reuten, IN BRUGES) in a public market. He is all business; just the facts of the rifle she needs. For a ruthless killer, he has a weakness for women. During a test of the weapon, he seems attracted by her skills, but clear emotion or communication aren't his strong suits. In his hideout town, he becomes a regular of the prostitute Clara (Violante Placido, SOUL MATE), who falls under the impression he is a good man.
Corbijn and writer Rowan Joffe, working from Martin Booth's novel, take the concept that it is compelling to watch a master of a profession at work. This is true here. The film watches quietly and painstakingly as Jack sets up his position in town, develops his cover, watches for the Swedes and completes his assignment. He is skilled and ingenious. But one believes he despises his skills. He says he hates machines to both Pavel and Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli, SALO), a priest who takes in interest in the quiet man who says he is a photographer. The perceptive priest wonders why he'd say that when as a "photographer" he works with a camera everyday.
The story weaves these elements with Jack's developing relationship with Clara. This budding love affair brings warmth to the rather chilly story, as well as a touch of real tension as Jack's profession comes colliding with a hopeful future. But because Jack, or Edward, is so closed off, we don't know why Clara is the one. Likewise the film doesn't delve deeply into Clara's motivations either, making her feel like a plot device at times. Like I mentioned earlier she says he's a good man, but based on what -- he makes love to her like a girlfriend and not a whore? She might want to raise her number of criteria when picking men.
Father Bendetto is actually a more fleshed out character and his conversations about sin with Jack allow us some way into the assassin's soul. From his military and butterfly tattoos, we only get a glimpse into his past and personality. But what does the disturbing opening scene make us believe about this man and his motivations with Clara? For better or for worse, he remains an enigma right up to the bittersweet end.