It’s a tale so used, abused and broken you can hear it wheezing. George Clooney’s American gunslinger and gunmaker finds himself contemplating mortality, morality and the possibility of starting over. Clint Eastwood polished this redemption theme to burnished brilliance in Unforgiven. The subject is even tackled in the video-game Western Red Dead Redemption.
Now it’s Clooney’s turn to saddle up. The American isn’t strictly a Western. Its setting is contemporary. Clooney wears a dark suit, tools around Italy by car, not horse, and tones his muscles to trendy perfection by doing pull-ups. But The American is inextricably linked to Old West codes of honor. Cloon ey’s Jack (no last name) is a loner who has stayed alive by keeping his blood as chilled as a vampire’s.
Dutch director Anton Corbijn, working from a script by Rowan Joffe, holds his film to a steady, often glacial pace. Corbijn, a noted photographer, follows his 2007 debut feature (the terrific Ian Curtis biopic Control) with a film of startling austerity. Think of the photo that Corbijn took of U2 for The Joshua Tree. You can feel the chill in Jack’s bones. In a small Italian village, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten, excellent) hires him to build a rifle for a high-level assassination.
What warms Jack is the possibility of love with a beautiful whore (Violante Placido), who also needs redeeming. All this would add up to two clichés passing in the night if Corbijn didn’t create scenes of harsh beauty and if Clooney didn’t invest heart and soul in the role. Still, The American is remote to a fault. Like Jack, it seems in danger of turning to stone.