Never underestimate the power of smart directing and a strong central performance to keep a movie interesting. Anton Corbijn’s The American isn’t a film with momentum. It’s not rushing anywhere or even setting up a clear destination. It’s an austere, contemplative piece that holds tension despite rarely introducing an immediate threat. Corbijn’s skilled direction is matched by a thoughtful, quiet performance from George Clooney who plays a character unlike any he’s done before. The American is one of the more difficult films this year as it moves slowly, deliberately, and without any hand-holding. But the result is a rewarding picture that’s refreshing after a mostly disappointing summer movie season.
The American of the title is Jack (Clooney), a hitman who is living a seemingly idyllic life in Sweden which is quickly shattered when men come to kill him (for reasons never explained). Jack makes it out alive and hides out in a small, beautiful Italian village awaiting instructions from his contact on how to proceed. He’s given a job that requires him to build a specialized rifle for an assassination. However, his life remains in danger and Jack’s (justified) paranoia becomes more intense throughout the film.
During his time in the village, he begins a friendship with local priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) and a romantic relationship with a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido). Only Clooney, with his innate charm, could play a character as cold and aloof as Jack and still convince the audience that people like Clara and Benedetto would want to spend time with him. Jack rarely smiles and he doesn’t make standard disaffected hitman quips (he barely even talks), but Clooney uses his tremendous talent to convey the complex emotions of his character.
Placido does a good job of providing the film with what little vivacity it has. Her chemistry with Clooney is essential in convincing us that Clara can get Jack to betray his instincts and trust some one. Less successful in playing off Clooney is Bonacelli. His stilted line delivery and the character’s heavy-handed dialogue are made especially awkward in a picture where every aspect down to the bullets fired is restrained and measured.
Jack’s taciturn and withdrawn demeanor is matched by Corbijn’s sparse, quiet direction. The American is a movie told with almost no flash or tricks, and yet it’s rarely dull. It’s fascinating how Corbijn is able to hold the audience’s attention while intentionally never engaging the viewer. It’s a tricky balancing act and while the film does become a little too remote and somber at times, for the most part it’s a hard-earned success.
Focus Features is trying to sell The American as an action-thriller, and that expectation is going to disappoint a lot of ticket-buyers. The film can be incredibly tense and the brief chases and gunfights are effective, but this movie is a slow burn. It’s about a hitman in an existential crisis as he feels death is about to close in on him and attempting to answer the question of whether he should even bother having a life. Corbijn and Clooney deserve great credit for crafting a film that’s far outside what the mainstream expects and which will catch a lot of viewers off guard. It meanders at its own pace, and walks perfectly in line with its protagonist’s emotional state. The film can at times be distant to its own detriment, but it never falls so far of course that it loses the audience completely. The American doesn’t try to lead and that’s largely why it’s so irresistible to follow.