George Clooney plays a professional assassin in “The American,” but please don’t take the words “George Clooney” and “assassin” to mean that this is an action thriller. Good heavens, no! It’s actually a quiet, contemplative, old-fashioned melodrama — and a highly engrossing one, too, if you can resist the urge to want it to be something else.
We begin with our hero, named Jack, on a mission in snowy Sweden. The job winds up having some messy complications, due in part to Jack’s failure to avoid making any personal connections. His employer, Pavel (Johan Leysen), has another job lined up for him in Italy; Jack, wanting a break, defers and cools his heels in a quaint Italian village.
It is here that he meets three important people. One is Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), a friendly priest. The second is Clara (Violante Placido), a friendly hooker. The third is Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), the client for whom Jack is supposed to be constructing a particularly awesome firearm. (Jack isn’t just good at killing people. He’s also good at making weapons for other people to use to kill people.)
Jack wants out of the business, and not just because aftermath from the Swedish affair is coming back to haunt him. The priest easily recognizes Jack’s problem. “You cannot doubt the existence of hell,” he says to the American. “You live in it. A place without love.”
A spy, assassin, secret agent or superhero whose life is filled with loneliness, who finds it increasingly difficult not to let anyone get close to him — this is not exactly a groundbreaking theme for a movie. (Nor was it new in 1990, when Martin Booth wrote “A Very Private Gentleman,” the novel this is based on.) But Clooney — a bona fide Movie Star who also happens to be very good at acting — draws us in to Jack’s weariness and sadness, expressing so much with nothing more than a look or a gesture. He does here what Jon Hamm has been doing lately on “Mad Men”: showing what a combination of masculinity and vulnerability looks like.
The director, Anton Corbijn, was a photographer and music-video guy before he made “Control,” the beautifully sad biopic about the lead singer of Joy Division. Corbijn seems to specialize in melancholy (several of the music videos he made were for Depeche Mode), and he gives the gorgeous Italian scenery in “The American” a wistful air. The film is more about mood and tone than it is about story. Its aim is not to thrill us but to make us feel something, and it pulls it off pretty well.
B (1 hr., 43 min.; )