I can’t remember the last time a George Clooney movie arrived in the marketplace with less buzz than The American, a purported thriller about a hit man in the midst of an existential crisis. Filmed mostly in Italy — with a European supporting cast — the movie’s title misleads: The American couldn’t be further from the Hollywood noise machine. It plays like a deliberately paced foreign film.
Nothing wrong with that except that the script by Rowan Joffe (28 Weeks Later) seldom digs beneath the surface. Credit director Anton Corbijn with taking a non-exploitative approach to potentially volatile material, but subtract points for Corbijn’s inability to sustain tension, a vital part of even the most cerebral of thrillers.
Despite its pretensions, The American doesn’t measure up to the kind of work we’ve come to expect from Clooney, a movie star with the sort of adventurous taste that has attracted him to movies such as Up in the Air, The Men Who Stare At Goats and Michael Clayton.
The American provides us with little background about Clooney’s Jack, an assassin who knows how to modify weapons for use in nearly any situation. Clooney deadpans his way through most of the movie. That fits the socially isolated character he’s playing, but also holds an audience at arm’s length.
To complicate matters, Jack’s background is hardly fleshed out. Tattoos suggest military experience. That’s about it. If this is a character study, it’s one without a character.
Jack might be working for a government agency. He might be an independent contractor. He spends most of the movie in an Italian mountain village. Presumably, we’re not supposed to care too much about the past: We’re expected to occupy ourselves with the question that persistently buzzes around Jack; i.e., can a man who takes lives ever hope to build one?
Not surprisingly, Clooney’s graying character has grown tired of the hard life. To succeed at his job, Jack can’t have friends or lasting relationships with women. He lives a monkish existence. He sustains an interest in butterflies, creatures that probably symbolize the transformation Jack wants to make: from killer to a man who’s able to live normally.
To make the obvious even more blatant, Clooney’s character engages in transparently “deep” conversations with a kindly village priest (Paolo Bonacelli). To give himself a semblance of human connection, Jack visits Clara, a local prostitute (Violante Placido).
For all their attempted realism, the filmmakers don’t exactly go hardcore on Placido’s character, a woman who looks none the worse for the wear of a profession that usually tends toward rougher edges. Can Jack and Clara find happiness together or must he pay the bill for past sins? How heavy are the sins? Consider this: Jack kills three people before the opening credits even have rolled.
When the movie reaches its climax, plot developments don’t seem entirely credible. That’s more forgivable than an inherent confusion at the movie’s core: Listlessness is not the same as quiet intrigue. For a long time, though, I found myself appreciating the movie’s approach: a parsimonious use of music, Clooney’s emotional minimalism, the monastic quality of the hotel rooms Jack occupies. But after a time, it becomes clear that this kind of heightened attention also suggests an absence of urgency.
Corbijn also, I think, overestimates our interest in the mechanics of assassination, turning Jack into a kind artisan of murder. He’s very precise in his labors, machine tooling various parts of the rifle he’s assembling for that one last job. He’s building the weapon for a woman (Thekla Reuten) who has been hired to assassinate an undisclosed target.
True to its butterfly symbolism, The American seems to want to transform from a genre piece into something more significant. As you probably have gathered, the movie takes itself quite seriously – which in this case proves less of a virtue than you might suspect. Clooney fans, thriller fans and art-house fans all may experience a mild letdown from a movie that seems to want to say something profound, but can’t quite get to it.
The American takes admirably careful aim, but ultimately misses its target.