George Clooney's new thriller "The American" takes itself very seriously. Not the bait-and-switch seriousness you would find in a Jason Bourne movie, where "realism" is just a camera style; and not the op-ed seriousness we get from "Michael Clayton," or "Syriana", where liberalism makes a pact with entertainment. No, this is a different register altogether: a hit-man movie concerned purely with the spiritual standing of its agonized anti-hero.
That would be Clooney, of course, whose character is known as Edward to some, but Jack to the man who seems to know him best -- his fixer, Pavel (Johan Leysen). Whenever Jack calls him, which is often, and always from a pay phone (they still have those in Europe, apparently), Pavel lets out an involuntary little sigh -- the way your dad did when he knew you were calling for another loan.
Jack doesn't want money, he wants to know why "the Swedes" knew where to find him -- a messy business that left three dead in the snow. He grudgingly takes Pavel's car to rural Abruzzo, Italy, but dumps the cell phone and makes himself at home in a hilltop village across from the one Pavel suggested. And then he waits.
Waiting is integral to suspense -- in one of the most suspenseful films ever made, Gary Cooper waits for a train due to arrive at "High Noon." Even so, it's rare for a thriller to give us as much down time as this one does. Clooney's indeterminate retreat is characterized by friendly but evasive chats with the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), energetic workouts with a prostitute (Violante Placido) who asks him out on a date, and five or six cups of coffee (at least one of them an Americano). Anyone who caught Jim Jarmusch's "The Limits of Control" last year will recognize the pattern, though Jarmusch's taciturn killer is a chatterbox next to Clooney's quiet American.
Directed by Anton Corbijn, the photographer who made his debut with the highly regarded Ian Curtis biopic, "Control," the film is cut to the bone, austere, still, and very beautiful to look at. But its severity works against it when the mechanism misfires, which is more often than you might expect.
It simply doesn't make sense that Jack isn't interrogated when the village is ruptured by a double slaying, for instance. The dialogue is extremely spare, but that may be as well, judging by the lean lines we do get. (The humdrum script is by Rowan Joffe, from Martin Booth's novel "A Very Private Gentleman.")
And when the thriller framework can't support the metaphorical (even metaphysical) weight Corbijn expects it to bear, the movie comes off as trite and pretentious. Improbably, Jack is a lepidopterist -- he even has the tattoo to prove it. In one scene he admires an endangered but obviously computer-generated butterfly that serves as a handy symbol of a soul we otherwise have to take on trust.
Clooney, of course, can hold the screen as easily as he wrests the high-powered rifle he builds out of secondhand auto parts. The actor constructs an engrossing portrait of a rigorously self-controlled professional on the point of unraveling -- or becoming human, if you like.
Unfortunately audiences may feel that an hour and three quarters in the company of this guilt-racked cipher is more than he deserves.