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'The American': An Abstract, Angst-Filled Art Thriller

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'The American': An Abstract, Angst-Filled Art Thriller

Movies

'The American': An Abstract, Angst-Filled Art Thriller

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TERRY GROSS, host:

George Clooney stars in a new movie opening today, called "The American." He plays Jack, an elusive gun maker hiding out in Italy from mysterious assassins.

Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: The paranoid thriller "The American" is spare, solemn, uninflected. It's like Camus' "The Stranger" and all the pulp novels in the '50s and '60s - French and American - that cribbed its existential world view. The movie has an amoral hero with no ties who moves from country to country, sheds past lives, and either kills for money or crafts weapons for other assassins.

The film is so studiously desolate that I think if at the screening I attended, someone had giggled in the wrong place, it would have opened the floodgates. It would have been like "Mystery Science Theater," with the audience heckling George Clooney and his God's-loneliest-man act.

But the silence held, and the movie cast a spell. We entered the mind of a man with no past or future, only a present made tenuous by a bullet that could come at any time.

One reason for the movie's power is a shocking opening sequence: an assassination attempt on a frozen lake in Sweden. I won't spell out what happens, but it lingers in the mind for the next hour and a half. Then Jack flees to Italy, where he contacts a man named Pavel, who seems to be his employer. I say seems because the movie does little, by design, to orient you.

Johan Leysen's Pavel has a ravaged face and a chilled demeanor. He only seems curious about the woman with Jack on that Swedish lake.

(Soundbite of movie, "The American")

Mr. JOHAN LEYSEN (Actor): (as Pavel) Who was the girl?

Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY (Actor): (as Jack) A friend.

Mr. LEYSEN: (as Pavel) A friend?

Mr. CLOONEY: (as Jack) Who are the Swedes?

Mr. LEYSEN: (as Pavel) I'm working on that. It's going to take some time. Did she set you up?

Mr. CLOONEY: (as Jack) She had nothing to do with it.

Mr. LEYSEN: (as Pavel) Pity. You can't stay here. I've made arrangements for you to leave town while I sort this out. Take a right outside the bar, then second left - Via Magenta. You'll find a dark-blue Fiat Tempra with Biscara plates. I've marked a small town on the map, Castelvecchio. Stay there. Lay low 'til you get my call. Don't talk to anyone. And above all, don't make any friends, Jack. You used to know that.

EDELSTEIN: "The American" is full of passages like that, with pauses, hidden agendas, minutiae. There are long scenes in which Jack does nothing but construct a weapon to a female client's specification, for purposes unknown: a machine gun with the range of a rifle, and a device to disguise the shooter's location. For a while, the only interludes of talk are Jack's exchanges with the old priest of an Abruzzo hill town.

The father, played by Paolo Bonacelli, utters thesis lines like: You're American. You think you can escape history. You live for the present. And: You cannot doubt the existence of hell. You live in it. It's a place without love.

That was where Clooney lived in his last movie, too, "Up in the Air." And I get a sense he's trying to deepen his persona. That might be a doomed enterprise. Clooney is naturally gregarious, a disarmingly handsome smoothie with a toasty, caressing voice. He pulled off the brooding thing in "Michael Clayton," but he doesn't here.

Yes, he's magnetic. And he's lost a lot of weight for the film, trimming himself down to muscle and sinew. But when he stares blankly off-screen, he's just blank. He's rather different from the loquacious - and British - hero of the novel on which "The American" is based, Martin Booth's "A Very Private Gentleman," who aims be quote, as indistinguishable from the next man as a pebble on the beach. Clooney's the last guy I'd cast as an anonymous assassin.

The Netherlands-born director, Anton Corbijn, helps by making the landscape do the talking. There are lots of paranoia-inducing overhead shots. Empty spaces alternate with twisty, ancient stone stairs and shadowed passageways.

As in "Up in the Air," Jack does make a new friend, Clara, a prostitute played by the oxymoronically named Violante Placido. I wondered why she was so familiar - with her soft, open face and voluptuous body. It turns out she's the daughter of Simonetta Stefanelli, unforgettable as Michael Corleone's doomed Sicilian bride in "The Godfather."

On every substantive level, "The American" is ridiculous. The book has a conventional whodunit solution. But the film, like Antonioni's "The Passenger," leaves you with a giant: Why?

But I enjoyed it anyway. It takes you back to an era of European, angst-ridden art thrillers in which the plotting was almost abstract. "The American" is - well, the least-American action movie in years.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

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