George Clooney, neck muscles ropy with tension, is the title figure in

The American

, a minor-key thriller about a utility player in the assassination game. He is a so-called shadow dweller who customizes weaponry and ammunition for top-level contract kills, ever looking over his shoulder for the bullet with his name on it.

His control, Pavel (Belgian actor Johan Leysen), calls him Jack. Others know him as Edward. Still others, two of whom are sultry and slinky enough to be Bond girls, call him "Signor Farfalla" (Mr. Butterfly), after the tattoo inked between his shoulder blades. Pavel comes through for Jack, offering him One Last Job, a "custom fit."

The film from Dutch director Anton Corbijn is as meticulous, enigmatic, and restrained as its protagonist. For those interested in where it ranks on the thrillometer, let us say that Corbijn's film is a haunting rather than a galvanizing experience.

Adapted from the novel A Very Private Gentleman by the late Martin Booth, The American (a British operative in the novel) resembles one of those melancholy Grahame Greene/John le Carré stories about a man expertly trained to be a cog in the engine of a superpower, plying his trade long after that engine has melted down.

Clooney, eyes alert in a soul-weary face, plays Jack as a withdrawn figure whose reserve draws people to him.

Hiding out in the Italian medieval hilltop village Castel del Monte, "the American" quickly excites the attention of the local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who invites him over to ponder the wages of sin between sips of Armagnac. (Since Bonacelli resembles Rodney Dangerfield, I half expected their conversations to erupt in laughter.)

With the padre, "Jack" remains cryptic. Is he himself a killer, or a killer of killers? What does he fear more, love or death?

With a client, Mathilde (the lovely Thekla Reuten), for whom he is fashioning a custom weapon as finely machined and tuned as a musical instrument, he asks, "I suppose I'll read about this in the International Herald Tribune?"

His relationship with a prostitute, Clara (the fetching Violante Placido, who has a lovely Isabella Rossellini smile), tests Jack to the max.

He wants to let down his guard and get close to her. But it's as if his professional armor is soldered to his skin and no one can really touch him.

Heavyhearted without being heavy-handed, Corbijn's lyrical movie is about a man who has built his own cell and become his own jailer.

The American *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Anton Corbijn. With George Clooney, Thekla Reuten, and Violante Placido. Distributed by Focus Features.

Running time: 1 hour, 43 mins.

Parent's guide: R (nudity, sex, violence)

Showing at: area theaters


Contact movie critic Carrie Ricket at Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at