“My soul, why do you face about and follow the lead of the flesh? Turn forward, and let it follow you! Whatever you feel through the senses of the flesh you only feel in part. It delights you, but it is only a part and you have no knowledge of the whole.” –Augustine, Confessions
In Anton Corbijn’s new, spare and beautifully suspenseful film The American, which took the box office in its first weekend over Machete, viewers find a man conflicted—not in the usual heroic sense of “How can I save the girl and enact justice?”, but in a much more existential sense of “How can I truly live without ever being known?” George Clooney plays Jack, an American assassin and gunmaker who has “lost his edge,” after letting his emotions get in the way for the last time. His Italian job boss sends him away to an unassuming Italian village, with the orders for another job which must be completed in solitude, without any human contact whatsoever. Things get complicated when Jack befriends a priest and romantically pursues a prostitute in town, and his line of work becomes an obstacle to his salvation, which comes only in being known.
There is this beautiful scene where Jack is at dinner with the prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido). Just after ordering, the truth is invited and Clara exposes the reality that something’s hidden from her. Jack just stares in agony. You see the beauty of the film in the silent moments, like this one, where Jack is utterly turned inward. He cannot hide, and yet he cannot elect exposure—and so all of life is only part and not whole. They leave dinner and you feel the weight of Jack’s quiet constraint, a love that is shadowed without true known-ness. The prostitute only knows him as Mr. Butterfly. He is love contorted with disordered desires, leading him into a true bondage of will, hiding a gun behind a picnic basket because he can—with out being known—trust no one.
I am reminded of Augustine’s Confessions, his perspective on disordered desires, how every act is the shadow of an act rooted in good, yet turned inward on the self and so privated of good. This turning inward, like Jack’s crisis, finds us in a perpetual conflict, literally bound to the many desires of the tethered human heart. Corbijn’s paints this conflict with impressive skill—Jack is stuck in this place until he can relinquish, confess, and be known. And yet, as Augustine writes, “I did not reach it. I could not reach out to it or grasp it, because I held back from the step by which I should die to death and become alive to life…And the closer I came to the moment which was to mark the great change in me, the more I shrank from it in horror. But it did not drive me back or turn me from my purpose: it merely left me hanging in suspense.”