Director Anton Corbijn has crafted a quiet, haunting European thriller, drained of emotion and moving to its own deliberate pace.
It’s the second film from Corbijn, a famed photographer and music video director who’s closely associated with the bands Depeche Mode and Joy Division (among others).
His first film, “Control,” was a beautiful, austere black-and-white biopic of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis.
“The American,” too, has the bleak fatalism of a Joy Division song, but taut and restrained, it bears none of the rock ‘n’ roll release.
The film opens with Clooney’s character ,Jack, in bed with a beautiful woman, warm next to a fire in a winter cabin.
Afterward, they bundle up and take a stroll in the knee-deep snow, where snipers suddenly begin firing at them.
Jack quickly and with obvious skill dispatches the threat, and tells his shocked companion to call the police. As soon as she turns, he shoots her in the back of the head. So much for pillow talk.
His boss (Johan Leysen) tells him by phone to lie low in a small Italian village.
Arriving there, he takes one look at it and makes a U-turn, settling on the more appealing nearby town of Castelvecchio, a picturesque medieval village in the mountains of Abruzzo.
Jack putts around town — a stone labyrinth — posing as a photographer of landscapes and architecture.
Though he has been warned not to “make any friends,” the town priest, Father Benedetto (Paulo Bonacelli), befriends him, and he develops a relationship with a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido).
They both see the darkness hanging over Jack, but are hopeful for him. Clara tells him, “You’re a good man, but you have a secret.”
Father Benedetto warns, “You’re American. You think you can escape history.”
His past is catching up, too.
Someone is shadowing him, reports of his previous misdeeds are showing up in the newspapers and a new job arrives: building a silent, highly precise rifle — a task which he attends to with the care of an artisan.
Though Jack says little and remains largely inscrutable, Corbijn — working from a script by Rowan Joffe, loosely adapted from Martin Booth’s 1990 novel, “A Very Private Gentleman” — gives glimpses of his sensitivity.
He finds it difficult to deny the companionship of the priest or the love of Clara. He has a weakness, too, for butterflies, with a tattoo of one of them on his back.
The question of Jack’s salvation is hinted at by the remarkable opening title sequence (which follows the abrupt shooting in the snow) that simply frames Jack in silhouette as he drives through a long tunnel with a bright light shining at the end.
“Michael Clayton” concluded with Clooney similarly in a car, but fully lit, finally unburdened.
Here, with dark gray hair and a sinewy frame, he’s again downcast, troubled and full of doubt. He’s cast off all hint of his most abundant characteristic: charm.
For Jack, every intimacy carries a threat. The most memorable shot in a film full of exquisite camera work from Corbijn and cinematographer Martin Ruhe is from Jack’s perspective as Clara’s hands clasp over his eyes — a game of “Guess who?” that feels momentarily terrifying.
Corbijn has said he views “The American” as a kind of Western, and he positions Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” in the background of one scene.
But the film has more of a film noir feeling of claustrophobic comeuppance. It has — if we are kind — some of the elegiac mystery of Antonioni’s “The Passenger” and some of the stoicism of a Jean-Pierre Melville policier.
That “The American” is beautiful to look at is unquestionable; Corbijn’s formal mastery is something to behold. What is finally slightly disappointing in the film is the familiarity of its story: another tale of “one last job.”
It’s difficult not to want Corbijn’s mournful seriousness to ease up a bit. But “The American” is nevertheless transfixing in its grace.
“The American,” a Focus Features release, is rated R for violence, sexual content and nudity. Running time: 105 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Jake Coyle covers entertainment for the Associated Press