George Clooney plays Jack, or Edward, or whatever his name is. We’re really not sure who he is, other than “The American,” and most of the time he’s quietly hiding out, always looking over his shoulder, trying to be prepared for the swift, sudden assassination attempt that could happen at any time.
In fact, we begin just that way, somewhere in the snowy depths of Sweden, where he’s taking a quiet stroll in the woods with an intimate friend, and they spot fresh tracks in the snow. She remarks how unusual it is that anyone would be out by themselves in this frozen wasteland, and immediately Jack’s sense of danger starts tingling. And just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
Then we rather precipitously, and without real explanation (nothing is really explained in this film), Jack is in Rome, and makes a call from a pay phone near the train station, where he is told to pick up a car that will have a cell phone and a map to his destination. He throws away the cell phone. Too easily traced. And he doesn’t stay at the designated place, but one in a nearby village, making his pay-phone calls from the requested locale. This is a man who has obviously survived by being very, very careful.
But why are they after him, and whom does he work for? We aren’t really told that, either. Only that he claims he isn’t good with machines, then fixes the car of a local priest (who tries to pursue a friendship with him, but he doesn’t make friends). The next thing we know, he’s constructing, literally, a murder weapon: a high-powered automatic rifle with customized silencer, but he tells his mysterious phone contact that this is his last job. In the meantime, he exercises regularly (Clooney’s not afraid to show us his buff body), and he hooks up with a local hooker, Clara (Violante Placido, who’s really not afraid to show us her body, either). Jack thinks he might even be developing some affection for this Italian girl, despite his resolve to be a loner, and her resolve to maintain emotional distance. (The fact that he seeks her company in the first place means that he hasn’t lost all feeling yet, despite his play-for-keeps game of clandestine contract kills.)
At one point, the kindly old priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) tells Jack that he senses there’s sin in his life, and would he like to confess it? Jack replies, “Everybody sins, Father.” The priest presses him to consider a confession and Jack replies, “I haven’t done anything other than what I’ve had to do,” which, of course, is a prevaricating response that they both know doesn’t explain anything. But Jack is a man not accustomed to explaining, not to anyone. And he’s not afraid to look the padre in the eye and tell him he’s not without sin, either, and, of course, that is true. But, the priest replies, “In a way, I am not worthy to wear these robes (of the priesthood). But then, I do have a heart for others, and that counts for something.” Indeed it does.
The priest’s pastoral instincts are correct, because Jack really is trying to find the love in his life, though he suspects it may be too late for him. And he may be right about that, too.
“The American” is a small-scoped drama that is, in its own way, timeless, and so is the setting of the quaint Italian village. It’s not high-tech 21st-century Hollywood; it’s more old-fashioned screenplay and careful mood setting, almost Hitchcock-like in its languorous pacing and sudden plot revelations. Clooney is memorable in this part. And we root for the murderous American despite ourselves.
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor of Grace Church, Greenville, Texas.