If one does not repent, God will whet his sword;
he has bent and strung his bow;
he has prepared his deadly weapons,
making his arrows fiery shafts.
See how they conceive evil,
and are pregnant with mischief,
and bring forth lies.
They make a pit, digging it out,
and fall into the hole that they have made.
Their mischief returns upon their own heads,
and on their own heads their violence descends.
Though promoted as a thriller, director Anton Corbijn and scriptwriter Rowan Joffe’s film is as much a meditative exploration of ennui and angst as it is an action film. Corbijn seems to be a minimalist filmmaker, using music sparingly and not afraid of long stretches of little or nor dialogue, the only sound provided by nature. In many ways the predicament of professional hit man Jack (George Clooney), the American of the title, is similar to that of those anguished souls that populated Michelangelo Antonioni’s films back in the 60s and 70s.
Without any back-story, we are thrust into the middle of a tryst Jack is enjoying with a lovely woman in a remote cabin in Sweden. As they are walking on the frozen lake, a sniper fires at them but misses. Jack is able to shoot the sniper and then, when he sends the woman to call the police, he unexpectedly shoots her in the back of the head, climbs the hill and kills the sniper’s accomplice. Next thing we know he is in Rome contacting his boss Pavel (Johan Leyson), who tells him he cannot stay there, that he should go to a village in the mountains of Abruzzo.
Jack chooses a different village instead, where he holes up. At first the village seems strangely empty, Jack roaming up and down the streets and the stone steps that connect various levels scarcely encountering a single person. Gradually we see more villagers, though nothing like the throngs that one usually sees in an Italian hill village. One of the locals, paunchy priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), takes an interest in Jack, inviting him to share wine together. Jack is apparently as skilled a crafter of weapons as he is a killer. Through Pavel he is put in touch with the mysterious Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), who comes to the village to test the rapid-fire rifle he has been commissioned to make for her. Trying it out at a stream outside the village, she suggests some alterations. Then she gets back on the train, giving us no clues as to whom she intends to kill with the weapon.
Meanwhile Jacks has hooked up with Clara (Violante Placido) at the local bordello (which seems very large and prosperous for such a remote, small village). Earlier he had said that he must not make any friends. Love, or a loving relationship could become the fatal chink in his armor, the person or persons trying to kill him in Sweden having tracked him to his present location. Only his vigilance saves him when they move to shoot him. It is this vigilance, tinged with the need to trust no one and suspect everyone, that also threatens his relationship with the one person he has come to love.
Jack is a character whom we identify with largely because it is George Clooney who plays him. A ruthless killer who, in his encounters with Father Benedetto, we see is not overly bothered by his acts, Jack is one of those about whom the psalmist wrote, “See how they conceive evil, and are pregnant with mischief, and bring forth lies.” Indeed, the next few verses of the psalm bear a striking resemblance to the ending of the film. I don’t know about the way in which Jack and Father Benedetto are portrayed in Martin Booth’s novel, A Very Private Gentleman, on which the film is based, but the film could be viewed as study in contrasts, much as the writer of Psalm 1 compares the righteous with the wicked.
Spoilers near the end!
1. What do you think of the minimalist style of the filmmakers? How does this lead us to “fill in the gaps” of the story? What did you think when Jack shot his first lover in the back of the head, especially in that we were given no details of their past relationship?
2. Why do you think that Jack chose not to settle in the village that Pavel sent him to?
3. Given Jack’s comment about not making any friends, what did you suspect his relationship with Clara would lead to? What did Jack almost do because of his suspicions?
4. Compare Jack and Father Benedetto. Although Jack is more affluent, which do you think has led the richer life? How is Jack like the person described in Psalm 7? How are the two like the two persons in Psalm 1?
5. Were you confused at first by what happened to Mathilde? What clues are we given that it was Jack, and not someone else that caused the event?
6. How are the ending of the film and that of the Psalm 7 passage akin?