It is good for a film actor to have a face that remains interesting to observe even when doing nothing, but it’s better to have a face that’s never doing nothing, even when it seems like it’s doing nothing. George Clooney’s handsome, sun-beaten visage conveys an awful lot of worry in The American without much dialogue and without any ostentatious gesticulation. He’s always thinking, while trying not to transmit what he’s thinking to those around him, while somehow always transmitting just enough of what he’s thinking to the camera to keep us captivated. The American is itself a captivating, quiet, slow burn of a thriller, and Clooney’s face, the face of a genuine star and a genuinely talented film actor, is integral to its effectiveness.
The script is Rowan Joffe’s adaptation of Martin Booth’s 1990 novel A Very Private Gentleman, though this being the second feature from rock photographer-turned-filmmaker Anton Corbijn, much of whatever was good or bad in Joffe’s script has been rendered invisible by Corbijn’s continual emphasis on sound, image, place, and behaviour. The American follows Clooney’s character, a professional assassin or gunrunner, from the snow-covered woods of Dalarna to the hillside villages of Abruzzo, and Corbijn’s favoured image when introducing these locations is that of a very wide landscape with tiny figures or a car traversing the absolute bottom of the screen—the movement is often so low in the composition that if you sit behind a tall person you might miss it. These images occur throughout the film and imbue it with a steady blend of beauty and dread. We feel our protagonist’s vulnerability, being so out in the open. We know from the first scenes onward that there could at any moment be a stranger hiding somewhere, probably wearing ugly pants, waiting to kill.
Clooney’s character—he goes by Jack or Edward, depending on company—is as taciturn as any of the antiheroes of Jean-Pierre Melville, yet is far more expressive, unable to disguise his nervousness. It seems there are some Swedes after him, so he keeps a low profile in Castel del Monte, where he gradually prepares a package for a mysterious woman. We see a tattoo of a butterfly on his back but learn virtually nothing of substance of his background. Still, we follow him closely enough to glean something of his tendencies and desires and weaknesses. He visits a beautiful prostitute with an unnerving gaze named Clara, played by Violante Placido, with whom he develops a peculiar rapport. He has some largely one-sided conversations with an aging priest, played by Paolo Bonacelli, who may or may not know something about his line of work—Clooney claims he’s a photographer, even though it’s obvious the priest doesn’t buy it. When in doubt Clooney simply says nothing, and sometimes it’s these refusals to respond that say he most.
It’s tempting to compare The American to The Limits of Control. Both films feature an enigmatic killer with a disliking both for small talk and modern devices, biding his time, visiting out-of-the-way European locales, doing exercises alone in a room, taking meetings in outdoor cafés, trading cryptic messages with people he probably can’t trust. Both also happen to feature memorable shots of a woman’s naked behind. But The Limits of Control is on another plane, concerned with philosophy over action, groove over structure. The American is more grounded, more familiar, moves steadily toward an end, deals openly in suspense, and reveals palpable stakes. What fundamental elements it does have in common with its recent predecessor is a knowingness about the potency of simple bits of business, the pleasure of watching George Clooney seated at a table, piecing together a rifle. It also, much more than your average tough guy thriller, understands the value of withholding information, of playfully and shrewdly managing ambiguity, of old-fashioned silence as the most seductive method of pulling us closer, and deeper, into story.