There May Be a Little of the American in Each of Us, Yet There’s None of Us in the American

I generally think the best kind of thriller is the one that moves slowly.  The American opens with a scene that sets the stage for most of the scenes in this film: The setting seems to have a strange significance in relation to settings to follow, it starts slow but takes a shocking twist, and it tells us that the film is about a man who values his work before all else.  What deepens the meaning of the opening scene is a later one in which he watches the 2nd scene from Once Upon a Time in the West–though he doesn’t sit through it.  It may be he didn’t like watching a classic villain do what he did, and for the same reason.

George Clooney‘s title character seems to call for comparison with his role as Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air, but in spite of how jaded Bingham is, he is a man who feels genuine sympathy for others.  He makes a bleak job look like an important service.  The American does his job because he’s good at it; he doesn’t ask the clients for whom he does his specialty craft “Who?” or “Why?”

Another film I’d point to in order to place The American in its proper genre is The Seventh Seal.  There is a strange larger-than-life quality to this film, even in scenes where the American does nothing more than walk from the downtown restaurant to his lodgings.  The job he takes with characteristic lack of concern for ultimate purpose turns out to have a certain poignancy.  The priest introduces himself to the American on his first day in his Medieval village.  He is the agent of philosophy who first gives our protagonist words for his condition: He is a skilled craftsman but declines to discuss his skill, he is a sinner, he is looking for peace though he is normally quiet and calm, he already knows what Hell is like because in his present state he can neither give nor receive love.

The priest is played by a barely-recognizable Paolo Bonacelli, the star of Salò.  (Note: Your author has not seen Salò and does not have plans to see it.)  I imagine director Corbin expressly wanted Bonacelli to imbue the priest’s words with an obscurely-ironic weight.  Such a casting choice might suggest a message that those who have dedicated themselves to service for others are never pure (an admission the priest makes himself), or that the part of us that does evil grows old while the part that aims to do good does not.  I imagine the message is something like this.

In any case, while the American ultimately finds he cannot run away from history, he can and does transcend it.


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