The first sequence of The American, like much of the rest of the movie, contains scarcely any dialogue. The scene unfolds in the snowy emptiness of Sweden, where Jack (George Clooney) is hiking with Ingrid (Irina Björklund), a woman whose history with Jack isn't revealed.
A sniper's bullet tears through the air, and in mere minutes the audience must puzzle out several crucial questions. Who is Jack (whose real name might be Edward)? Why is someone trying to kill him? Why does he react as he does, particularly how he leaves his girlfriend?
Most movies from the big U.S. studios would provide responses in short order, but The American is content to leave many things — including a clearer explanation of what unfolds in the opening frames — left unsaid and unanswered. Very loosely adapted from British author Martin Booth's obscure 1991 novel, A Very Private Gentleman, director Anton Corbijn's film, which opened Wednesday, is a cinematic anomaly: a U.S. production that in look, pacing and casting is more European than Clooney's own Italian villa.
"I'm sure a lot of people will think it's on the slow side of things," says Corbijn, whose previous film, 2007's Control, was a critically acclaimed but little seen fictionalized biography of Ian Curtis, lead singer of the British post-punk band Joy Division who committed suicide in 1980. "But I think there is too much explaining in films sometimes. Yes, there's not a lot of back story on George's character. But it's enough for me to follow the metamorphosis that he is trying to achieve."
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As in the book, Jack is an accomplished and precise craftsman, but what he is meticulously creating in the workshop aren't handmade violins or ships in a bottle. They're high-powered weapons used for assassinations. Jack wastes little energy worrying about the principles of his calling — it's his job, he's good at it and he takes as much pride in his handiwork as a gourmet chef might show for a faultless beef Wellington.
Like almost anyone with an illicit past, Jack must constantly watch the shadows, and as Corbijn's film begins, Jack is looking to get out — with one last automatic rifle to build for a female shooter named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). He heads to a medieval Italian town in Abruzzo to escape his pursuers and build his final gun, and while there he meets Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) and prostitute Clara (Violante Placido), who independently conspire to reveal a bit of Jack's hidden soul.
The American is very much a tale of a man alone, and to highlight that vision, the filmmakers not only switched its protagonist's nationality (he's English in the novel) but surrounded Clooney with a cast and crew almost exclusively European.
Rather than pack pages of expositional dialogue into the script (credited to Rowan Joffe, after drafts by numerous other writers over years of revisions), Corbijn, who is best known as a photographer, relied on long, lingering shots of Jack and the Italian countryside. "We were trying to make a film that had a lot of beauty in it," Corbijn said.
Clooney's producing partner, Grant Heslov, who is an American producer, says that was part of the attraction.
"George and I had both seen Control and were huge fans of the film. That's a huge part of the puzzle when George is considering working with a director," Heslov says. "Even though Control is a very different kind of story, it's beautiful. But it's hauntingly beautiful. It's not commercially beautiful."
Clooney, who will be seen in writer-director Alexander Payne's The Descendants in 2011, ultimately weighed in on how he thought the movie should end. Without giving anything away, we'll say he made an unusual choice.
"This wasn't one where we said, 'We're doing an Ocean's Eleven franchise,'" Heslov says of the film's overall European tone and structure. "On a $70 million film, it's less of an art form. That's just a fact. Anton is an artist. And he's never going to tell a movie in a straightforward way."
Clooney wrote via e-mail that that's why he wanted to make The American.
"We wanted to do a movie in the vein of the '70s foreign films that influenced so many great filmmakers today," Clooney wrote. "We felt if we kept the budget low, that the outside influences (like a studio) would be minimal and we were lucky that Focus (Features, the distributor) was on board with the concept from the beginning."