A Moment of Truth in ‘The American’

George Clooney gets metaphysical in a quiet and underrated thriller

Photo by Max Kleinen on Unsplash.

Sometime while everyone was watching, George Clooney went from being a young hunk on TV to being one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars and directors. The American (2010), based on novelist Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman (1990) and directed by Anton Corbijn, is one of my favorite films starring Clooney, and one scene in particular has lodged in my brain and demanded attention. With a little recourse to philosophy, and none to film theory, let’s unravel — or try to — a stunning moment of truth during the film’s climax.

The American is full of brooding suspense. Clooney plays Jack, a gunsmith and hitman who takes a job for the criminal underworld constructing a high-power sniper rifle. He holes up in a picturesque Italian town and begins what he intends to be his last job. The gregarious Father Benedetto, ignorant of Jack’s profession, befriends him, and like Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946) starring Humphrey Bogart, Jack is surrounded by beautiful women, notably his assassin contact Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) and his favorite prostitute Clara (Violante Placido). There’s a lot of silence as he assembles the weapon, engages in clandestine rendezvous and makes love, but eventually the action erupts and the shooting starts.

That’s the moment of truth, and there are spoilers ahead. Under orders from above, Mathilde tries to shoot Jack with the rifle he constructed, but he has rigged it to backfire. When it does, it injures Mathilde and she falls from a rooftop. Jack rushes to her and asks who her employer is moments before she dies. Hearing footsteps, he whirls and points his gun . . . but it’s only Father Benedetto and other clergy, who were involved in a religious procession when they saw Jack dash down a side street. Benedetto is shocked at the sight of Jack holding a gun and standing over a body, and Jack’s secret life is now exposed.

It’s a moment of revelation. In mere seconds, Jack learns for certain that Mathilde and their employer want him dead, and Mathilde realizes Jack has betrayed her by providing a faulty rifle. The biggest revelation is of Jack’s secret life to Father Benedetto, the community and — if there is a higher power — God. Jack remains grim on the outside. Judging from what we know about him, however, it’s reasonable to surmise that he’s filled with distress on the inside. The vulnerable part of him must believe that his only friend is looking at him and seeing not just Mathilde’s death but every murder in which he has ever been involved, including the traumatic one of his lover in the film’s opening sequence. In seconds, everything is laid bare.

Or is it? After all, Father Benedetto and the other onlookers only know that Jack is involved in violent events, events for which he may be, and indeed partially is, innocent. It follows that Jack is wrong in his assessment that Benedetto knows of his guilt. Jack is even wrong about his own guilt, because we the viewers know — even if he doesn’t — that he is in his innermost being no longer a cold-blooded killer and has not been for some time. Reinforcing this is the circumstance that Clara — Jack’s very soul — knows almost nothing of these events. She has already gone to meet Jack outside town so she can leave and start a new life with him. Thus, this moment of revelation is also a moment of concealment.

The setting: Castel del Monte, Italy. Photo by Ziegler175, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped and color enhanced by author.

This paradox holds something of the nature of understanding. When we understand, we also do not understand, so in everything understood — nature, art, ourselves — there remains mystery and even falsehood. Like Jack and the other characters in The American, we never fully know what’s going on within and around us. This basic idea is nothing that countless thinkers haven’t addressed or that hasn’t simply crossed most of our minds at some point, but one philosopher to address it through painstaking — fascinating yet frustrating — detail, was Martin Heidegger (1889–1976).

Throughout his life, Heidegger cast everything as a joining. Early on, as he distinguished himself from Husserlian phenomenology, most notably through his major work Being and Time (1927), he directed attention not just toward what is present to human consciousness as phenomena, but also toward what does not appear as phenomena, what is packed into our experience but escapes immediate attention. In The Origin of the Work of Art (1935), he speaks of truth as a happening that is an unveiling as well as a veiling. Later, he developed the fourfold, poetic rather than technical in its terminology, to describe the thingness of things: earth, sky, gods and mortals. As he writes in “The Thing” (1950), each of these four can only be thought through the others. Thus, the fourfold is actually a onefold. Each of these joinings unites what is within our grasp with what exceeds it.

To elucidate his philosophical reflections, Heidegger preferred taking examples from high culture — ancient Greek temples, Van Gogh’s paintings of peasant shoes (about which there is some debate) and the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843) and Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), but I see no reason why we may not also find insights in 21-st century action thrillers. They may not be inexhaustible in their depths the way a play by Shakespeare or an opera by Mozart is, but even these works of art do more than merely entertain. As in The American, that surplus content may come across strongest not throughout the work, but in a single moment.

Director Anton Corbijin came out of a lengthy and impressive career directing music videos for the likes of Depeche Mode, U2 and Nirvana to bring us one of Clooney’s best films. According to Rotten Tomatoes, it wasn’t a hit with audiences, but I consider it to be one right up there with the oft maligned Solaris (2002) and the applauded Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). The American is gorgeous and gripping from beginning to end and provides a glimpse, but only a glimpse, of the opposites united in our most basic experience of reality.

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J.P. Williams

J.P. Williams

I write about the intersection of arts and ideas.