Viewers expecting a thrill ride are going to be disappointed by Anton Corbijn’s The American. Those expecting a movie that trades on George Clooney’s charm are probably going to be even more disappointed. This is a film almost guaranteed to puzzle and polarize the audience. It’s a thriller, sort of, but its thrills are doled out rather sparsely. “Action packed” is not a term that can be applied here. What action there is, is not especially showy. In fact, it’s straightforward stuff. And yet nothing else about the film is. The film has been called a case of style over substance, but really The American is more style over story that revels in being impenetrable.
The American simply dumps the viewer in the middle of a situation involving a professional assassin (Clooney), whose name might be Jack or maybe it’s Edward, whose romantic tryst in Sweden is interrupted by gunmen. Soon the snow is littered with corpses and Jack is in Italy being told by his boss, Pavel (Johan Leysen), to go hide in a sleepy mountain town, and is given a car and a cell phone for this purpose. Jack keeps the car, but is too canny and suspicious to keep the phone—or to go to the town he is sent to. Instead, he makes his own arrangements in another town nearby. There he becomes cautious friends with the local priest, Fr. Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), and romantically involved with a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido).
All of this has happened without us really learning a single thing about Jack—and that doesn’t really change. We’re given hints that he’s not truly a bad guy—within the limits of his profession—and that he’s likely to be shut out of his way of life and that he might even be capable of redemption, or at least a shot at it. Little of this is stated. It’s mostly suggested in subtle ways—and it helps that Clooney is too innately likable to seem irredeemable. It feels like a character study of an enigma that cannot be truly understood or solved. And that’s an admirable quality—one that makes The American compelling.
Less admirable—and less successful—is the film’s heavy reliance on thriller conventions in other areas. Really, could there by anything older than the professional agreeing to that “one last job”? (You have only to look at last week’s The Last Exorcism to see how that sort of thing tends to work out.) And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who the target of this last job is, nor the role of the stylish and mysterious woman (Thekla Reuten, In Bruges) who is sent to Jack for the right equipment for the job. If you’re paying attention and are even moderately well-versed in this kind of movie, you’ll almost certainly spot the supposed plot twist. In case you aren’t, however, I’ll say no more on that score.
The genre conventions don’t ruin the film, but they do take it out of the realm of the impenetrable and into that of the somewhat predictable. That’s especially jarring in a movie that otherwise seems to be more in line with Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) than with a straightforward thriller—and outfitting it with these tropes isn’t going to make it any more user friendly to action fans. It’s still going to be slow and introspective and without much in the way of answers. Even so, I think it’s a film that’s very worth seeing, but one that is only going to work with an audience that’s open to it. Rated R for violence, sexual content and nudity.