Seeing THE AMERICAN made me read the book on which it is based. Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman turned out to be a passable thriller that has its moments but pales in comparison to the film. The movie is a taut, perfectly paced and morally ambiguous character study that, by making the central figure an American (and being re-titled accordingly), pulls the story into the world of Highsmith’s Ripley or Greene’s The Quiet American.

There is something said here not just about the moral universe that Clooney’s skilled loner inhabits but also about the confluence of national character with personal character. There may be certain traits that are collective as well as individual, and, although this is an austerely non-judgmental film, it raises questions that are geo-political in scope. That was overtly true of Greene’s take on Americans in the world and was always an unspoken undercurrent to Highsmith’s cold-blooded but magnetic expatriates, of which Ripley is only the best known. Clooney’s performance is pitch-perfect in THE AMERICAN, which stands next to UP IN THE AIR as the second film in so many years in which he has played a solitary man whose sense of identity hinges on being very, very good at terminating people.

The earlier film, in which he played a consultant who flies around the country to fire people for downsizing companies, intrigued but was also a little disappointing. The premise, and what it says about the reassuring anonymity and impermanence of a certain kind of travel, was ingenious, and in that respect the Golden Globe for director Jason Reitman‘s screenplay was deserved. But underneath the originality of the tale is the all-too-familiar story of an independent man who wakes up mid-life and discovers that what he really needs to be happy is a conventional life to replace the unique one he has made for himself.

Clooney is memorable in the role and Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are, if anything, even more so in theirs. But UP IN THE AIR is a critique of corporate conformity that does little more, in the end, than embrace the anodyne of sentimental conformity as the only alternative. The hardened mercenary of THE AMERICAN does not, to be sure, live a life that can be endorsed morally. But the hard honesty of Clooney’s character has, in the context of a cinematic fiction, an integrity in which his corporate doppelgänger, in the Reitman film, is lacking.

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