There’s a reason so many movies give us a character who has just one last job to do before he (it’s almost always a he) can get free. It is because we can sympathize with someone despite even the most reprehensible past if what he wants is to escape from it. Our heads may want justice but in our hearts we can understand the dream of breaking away.
Especially in a romantic location, with the possibility of new and unquestioning love. “The American” may be the story of an assassin but it is not a chases-and-explosions movie. It is an almost elegiac meditation on choice, fate, trust, and purpose, punctuated by shoot-outs.
We know him as Jack (George Clooney, who also produced). But two women call him “Mr. Butterfly” for two different reasons. One is a professional colleague, who sees his appreciation for a butterfly that rests, briefly, on her when they are out in the woods. The other is a prostitute he visits, who sees the butterfly tattoo between his shoulder blades. Both women indicate an interest in him beyond their professional relationship. One of them will make him think about it.
We know he is all business. In the very first scene, we watch him coolly execute someone he cares about only because she saw too much. In the scene where he is briefly bewitched by the butterfly he takes out a bottle of wine he had taken the time to chill for verisimilitude because they were pretending to be on a picnic. His colleague is clearly willing to make it into a picnic but he pours it out, again a stickler for plausible deniability and staying on point.
“Above all, don’t make any friends,” he is told by the only person he seems to trust, the man he goes to when people are trying to kill him and he needs to find out who they are. But he finds a place to stay in a breathtakingly picturesque Italian town and finds himself talking to the local priest (a warmly sympathetic Paolo Bonacelli) and a pretty prostitute (Violante Placido). He jumps at backfiring Vespas and dropped books but he is right to be suspicious more often than not. The priest tells him, “You’re American. You think you can escape history.” But Jack knows that it is not an individual adversary who is cornering him, but his past.
Audiences can see this as a metaphor of American actions abroad, as the British put it, a question of how much crockery is broken at the end of the day. Or it can be seen as the story of an individual who did something because he was good at it and now wonders if that was enough of a reason.
Parents should know that this movie features characters who are assassins. There is shooting, choking, and brief strong language. The movie includes some grisly wounds, sexual situations, prostitutes, and full female and brief rear male nudity.
Family discussion: Who do you think Jack was working for? How did he decide who to trust? Can someone like that change?
If you like this, try: “The Gunfighter” with Gregory Peck, and “In Bruges” with Colin Farrell, both stories of killers whose pasts are catching up with them. You may also appreciate the book, A Very Private Gentleman, by Martin Booth.