George Clooney spends most of The American in a state of observation. His character, alternately called “Jack,” “Edward,” “Mr. Butterfly” (for his admiration of the insect, as witnessed by his late-night hobby of reading about them, his ability to distinguish a specific species at a glance, and the tattoo of one on the back of his neck), and “the American” (as opposed to “an American,” the declarer of that nickname stresses), is a blank slate. He looks at those to whom he’s talking with an impassive stare. He searches rooms without any judgment leveled toward what he finds. He builds an automatic sniper rifle practically from scratch with the concentration and confidence of routine that comes from years and years of practice.

Jack is a cold-blooded, amoral killer. Within minutes of his first appearance in the film, he shoots a woman in the back of the head — the same woman he has spent the previous, short time in the film in bed with, on a walk with, and, in her last moments prior to her final one, protecting. This is not a man deserving of or looking for sympathy. He finds a connection that could be compassionate if only he were capable of recognizing it. Instead, he rifles through the woman’s purse, trails her when she’s on her own, and sits with her at a picnic waiting for the moment when, he assumes, he will have to shoot her.

The woman, Clara (Violante Placido), a prostitute in the small villa of Castel del Monte, Italy, is the most obvious extension of possibility to the protagonist, even more so than the priest Fr. Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) who speaks of Jack’s soul. She is, after only two encounters in a business environment, Jack’s way out — not the spiritual redemption the priest offers but the emotional one of connecting to another human being.

Placido is sweet and sincere in what amounts to the old standby of a hooker with a heart of gold and also mischievous and alluring in what could amount to the old standby of the femme fatale. We could see her character shifting in either direction, which makes her role into more than a cliché.

It’s the same sort of trick that Clooney does as Jack and director Anton Corbijn does with the film as a whole. Rowan Joffe’s screenplay (based on the more appropriately titled novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth) is basically little more than a career criminal on one last job. The important part is that he is unaware of that fact, while we can sense it almost from the start.

As such, Jack is as faithful to his routine as he would be on any other mission — a job as mysterious to him when Pavel (Johan Leysen), his main contact in Rome, first assigns it to him as it is to us.

Jack exercises each morning, wanders the streets and alleys of Castel del Monte, drives to a nearby market to meet his client Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), the woman who wants the rifle, chats with the priest, and scavenges the garage of mechanic Fabio (Filippo Timi), one of Benedetto’s flock (in more ways than one), for spare parts to customize Mathilde’s weapon.

Mathilde is enigmatic in a very transparent way. It’s clear what her goal is, although even Jack only dares venture far enough to voice his assumption that he’ll be reading about her work in the papers shortly. He brings her to the same grove by the river he later takes Clara. Both scenes are tense in the juxtaposition of the appearance of the ordinary and the malign intent underneath. Mathilde and Clara trust Jack in two different ways, while there is no reason for them to do so in any way — or he to trust either of them, for that matter.

The film is quiet, methodical, and vigilant. Even the occasional chases are modest. The alleys of the village that Jack spends so much time exploring are a credit to the old, standby rule of real estate. They twist and turn, up and down, intercrossing at intervals, full of alcoves, and as easy to become lost in during the day as at night. The mundane sounds of faraway voices and dogs barking barely cover the footfalls of the chased and the pursuer. When vehicles must be used for an action sequence, Corbijn understands that even that must be inconspicuous, lest either participant blows his cover.

Corbijn controls the pace and somber tone with admirable skill, and the cast (particularly Clooney, whose fa├žade of stone breaks only a few times) never gives too much away until absolutely necessary. The American, in its examination of routine, gives us a thriller that rarely is.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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