The American

Movie Information

The Story: An assassin hiding out in a small Italian town agrees to one last job. The Lowdown: Though hawked as a straight thriller, this is really an enigmatic art movie with a style and an introspective mood that some may find off-putting.
Genre: Enigmatic Thriller
Director: Anton Corbijn (Control)
Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Paolo Bonacelli, Thekla Reuten, Johan Leysen
Rated: R

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

8 thoughts on “The American

  1. Me

    I was for sure you were going to give this two stars i know how thin your patience is.

  2. Ken Hanke

    i know how thin your patience is.

    Depends on what I’m being patient with — and if I think my patience was rewarded. In this case, I thought it was. But it’s not a film I’ll be revisiting — at least that’s my guess.

  3. tIM

    The American was so slow that I was in tears by the end. It was like a slowed down The Matador without any humor or character development. How did your review score this boring waste of time the same at four stars?

  4. kjh.childers

    I thought the film dark and full of paranoia.
    From the moment he’s in Italy, making a phone call …
    to the walking around the empty cobblestone streets,
    Clooney’s character seemed never to have had a chance to rest, and the drop off scene … as he’s sitting there Clooney doesn’t appear to blink, paying his euros for coffee he didn’t drink … ha!

    I liked it, me wife did, too, especially the Red light moment !!

  5. David

    I found this movie very disappointing, especially after reading that it would be “Hitchcock”-like on the back of the DVD box. Simply nothing in the story that made me feel inspired or remotely moved. By the way, which character was responsible for the death of the assassin chick at the end?

  6. Ken Hanke

    I freely confess that at this distance I remember very little about the movie, which doesn’t surprise me in the least, because it struck me at the time as a “four star forgettable.” Not really good enough to be all that memorable.

  7. luluthebeast

    Viewing it on cable last night, I didn’t like it as much as you did. While I enjoyed the cinematography, there were just too many assassin cliches in it. And I figured he knew the woman was going to use the rifle on him, so he rigged the new ammo to explode.

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