We are in the snow-covered woods by a frozen lake in Sweden. The camera leads us through the window into a cabin where Ed (George Clooney) and a beautiful woman lie in bed. The sun rises and Ed steps out into a world of white under a brilliant sun. But something is wrong. Zing! A bullet smashes into a rock a few inches from his head. His girlfriend runs out. They crouch as the bullets fly in. Ed pulls out his gun. “You have a gun?” The girl is surprised. There are two attackers and (spoiler alert) Ed kills them both. “Go in and call the police,” he says to the girl. As soon as she turns her back he shoots her in the head.
Ed--he also goes by Jack, though probably neither is his name--is an assassin in The American, the new film directed by Anton Corbijn based on the book A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth. Whether he is CIA, and thus one of “our” killers, or the agent of an international mob or just a freelancer does not seem to matter. He kills for a living, but as we get to know him—and no one really knows him well—we are meant to sense that somewhere in that cool, black heart is a half-smothered speck of decency.
Ed’s shadowy boss, Pavel (Johan Leysen) whose haggard, lined face reeks of evil intent, whom we see speaking into a cell phone from who knows where, tells him to disappear to the spectacularly beautiful Castel del Monte in Abruzzo and to not make any friends.
Ed spends most of the time walking the silent streets alone, chewing gum, eyes flitting from side to side, ears tuned to the click of another killer’s weapon. And he makes two friends. One is the prostitute Clara (Violante Placido) whose body when she swims nude is beautiful; the scene of their bordello lovemaking however, though not pornographic, is gratuitous. The other friend is the village priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who spots Ed the day he arrives, speaks English and offers him hospitality and concern. But the killing profession has made Ed so numb to honest human relationships that he trusts no one. And with good reason. If the film has several lessons to teach, this is one of them.
After all, why did he shoot his girlfriend in the head in the first scene? Most likely because he thought she was in league with the two assassins. The audience cannot escape the possibility that Clara or the priest is also part of a conspiracy.
The eccentric little-village Italian priest is a stock, usually lovable, literary character. We remember the Don Camillo novels and Graham Greene’s Spanish Monsignor Quixote, and Hollywood’s temptation is to go with a stereotype. But one of the graces of "The American" is that it is not a Hollywood, or even an “American” film. Father Benedetto is old, homely and overweight, and, unlike cliché priests, never paternally addresses Ed as “my son.” He takes a pastoral initiative without coming on too strong and cooks dinner for him, the closest the film comes to a Eucharist.
Ed is posing as a photojournalist. "Do you study our history?" the priest asks. "No," Ed replies. "That’s the trouble with you Americans," says Benedetto, “You think you can escape history.” Which is what Ed is trying to do, extricate himself from a history of murdering people.
But Ed is also an expert mechanic and, through Pavel, accepts a commission to construct a high tech sniper’s rifle for a mysterious, glamorous Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). He collects metal parts from a young auto mechanic friend of the priest, and we are treated to long, wordless scenes of our American filing down steel, screwing pipes and shaving wood to create the small scale equivalent of the weapon of mass destruction—with no question of exactly on whom it will be used. Meanwhile, Pavel observes, Ed is “losing his edge,” his instinct for who is really who and how he must react.
"The American" is a thriller, but a quiet one with lots of tense, lonely walks through dark medieval streets, only one car chase, no explosions and gun fights that last just a few crucial shots. It has traces of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in that both Ed and Raskolnikov encounter grace thanks to a sinful woman; of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, where the priest is guilty of a not-so-secret sin from years before; and even echoes of the Randolph Scott westerns, where a lone horseman with a mysterious past rides into town with the intention of hanging up his guns only to be forced to shoot it out one more time.
The reviews of "The American" have not done the film justice. It is a film about America today: a nation that has manufactured too many weapons, killed too many people and is in danger of killing what is best in itself.