Clooney shines in beautiful, yet convoluted, spy thriller
The eponymous protagonist of this arty, offbeat thriller is Jack, aka Edward, aka Mr. Butterfly, and he’s played by George Clooney. He’s a loner and some kind of secret agent, both a killer and freelance master craftsman specializing in custom-made firearms for contract killers. He’s a kind of introverted James Bond, a lethal technician and a magnet for babes, even though he maintains a kind of monkish solitude.
Director Anton Corbijn (Control) makes elegant use of European settings, wintry Sweden at first but mostly the bucolic Abruzzo in Italy, and gives the whole thing a suavely austere tone. Clooney’s smoothly stoical performance is nicely suited to a character who is by turns brutally efficient and adventurously sensual, but neither the story nor the star can make full sense of the puzzles and eventual contradictions of plot and character here.
Still, the thing exercises a certain fascination on a moment-to-moment basis. At worst, it’s an anti-thriller that remains a little too attached to the genre conventions from which it pretends to detach itself. At best, it’s a richly textured detour through some of the more intimate and sensual pleasures of several thriller-genre offshoots—Kafkaesque international intrigue, the girls-and-guns chase flick, the Zen-like ministrations of the professional gunman.
Corbijn includes an allusion to the masterful spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, but The American is closer in manner and mood to the brusquely downbeat crime thrillers of Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samouraï, The Red Circle). But Corbijn’s exquisitely sensuous mise en scène—the elegant visuals and a resonantly subdued soundtrack—exercise a good deal of fascination, but do little to account for the loops and lurches of the central story (adapted by Rowan Joffe from Martin Booth’s novel).
There are several story strands of interest here—Clooney/Butterfly’s relationships with the village priest (Paolo Bonacelli), his icily remote supervisor Pavel (Johan Leysen), and three Bond-girl variations (an angelic Italian hooker, a Dutch contract killer and a Swedish sweetheart), each of whom looks a lot like the other two—but none of them has a satisfactory pay-off. Once again, the journey is more interesting than the destination.