Cool, understated, stripped to essentials, “The American” centers upon the sort of American anti-hero — the laconic cowboy, the perennial outcast, the reform-minded gangster making one final heist, the bad man seeking redemption — who used to appear regularly onscreen but has been pushed aside of late by action heroes and comic vulgarians. Although the themes stressed in Rowan Joffe’s adaptation of the late Martin Booth’s 1990 novel “A Very Private Gentleman” are conventional — escape from one’s past, the fresh start made possible by the right woman — director Anton Corbijn’s comparatively astringent approach invests them with a refreshing rigor while simultaneously evoking certain aspects of loner-centric American cinema, early 1970s-style. It’s an atmospheric, sympathetic piece of work, even if not one destined to speak to too many people in this day and age.
Moving from the defiantly low-budget indie “Control” in 2007 to a picture starring George Clooney represented a major jump for the Dutch-born, Britain-based Corbijn. But the longtime portrait photographer and music video veteran feels very much in control of the mood, style and spare storytelling method in play here, as Clooney plays something near the opposite of his Danny Ocean character, a longtime secret operative and assassin (surely for the CIA, although his affiliation is unstated) not allowed friendships or unguarded human contact with anyone.
If it hadn’t already been used, “Hide in Plain Sight” would provide the most descriptive title for this story of man imprisoned by his past and job. At a snowy Swedish retreat, Clooney’s thickly bearded character, variously called Jack and Edward, is fired at by a sniper, whom he (perhaps too) handily dispatches, along with another predator and the young woman with whom he had shared a cabin and who conceivably could have been an informant. But in retrospect he doubts it and remains troubled by her death.
To escape further bother from troublesome Swedes, the man shaves and, on instruction from his crusty, ill-tempered boss (Johan Leysen), retreats to the Abruzzo area east of Rome, a rugged, mountainous region dotted with small hilltop towns seldom seen in the cinema (the filmmakers had intended to base the shoot in the town of L’aquila before it was devastated by the April, 2009 earthquake).
Keeping largely to himself, Jack/Edward strikes up an acquaintance with a sly and prying old priest (Paolo Bonacelli) while lighting a controlled bonfire with a great-looking prostitute, Carla (Violante Placido, daughter of actor-director Michele Placido and actress Simonetta Stefanelli, who was Michael Corleone’s doomed Sicilian bride in “The Godfather”). Lively, unhardened, amazingly adept at English for a rural girl and altogether ready for bigger and better things, Carla evidently finds this in her American, who ignites her sexually to the extent that she turns off the meter. For him, decisively, she is something worth living for.
Still, he’s got his obligations, which center upon fabricating a special rifle designed to be used by a tough and foxy protege (Thekla Reuten) who’s a sort of young female equivalent of him. Long scenes are devoted to Clooney expertly fashioning what these days might be called an artisanal firearm, quietly toiling in an improvised workshop until every last gauge, chamber and bullet is honed and smoothed to perfection.
As it is for Clooney’s character, the tension in “The American” is buried very deep, so deep, in fact, that you barely feel it, making the experience of watching it a low-temperature affair even as it keeps its hooks in. The tone of the film recalls the fine, spare 1970s work of screenwriter Alan Sharp in the perennially underrated “Night Moves,” “The Hired Hand” and “The Last Run,” the latter especially because it involved an American criminal dragged out of his retirement in a European village. The fact that John Huston started directing “The Last Run” (he was replaced by Richard Flesicher) and helped write “The Killers” establishes a Hemingway connection; like the hunted figure in “The Killers,” Jack/Edward knows what’s coming but doesn’t know when or from where, leaving him only with the choice of how to deal with it philosophically.
The emotion, such as it is, comes at the end of a very long fuse, when everything that the man has kept so tightly bottled up comes boiling to the surface; Jack/Edward has one shot at possibly escaping his presumed destiny and Clooney indelibly catches the character’s desperate anxiety and fearful hope as he tries to slip through the eye of the needle. You can see the blood rise to his face with his long-suppressed emotion and it’s a sight to behold.