Director: Anton Corbijn
Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Paolo Bonacelli, Thekla Reuten, Johan Leysen
Review: 4.5 stars (of five)
The American is an excellent film, a slow, thoughtful pleasure that’s sure to perplex and piss off a large chunk of its audience. It’s about a hit man/gunsmith but has very little action, none of it flamboyant and fun. It stars George Clooney, but employs none of his considerable trademark charm—he barely even smiles. It has no exposition, so some things you learn as the film goes along, and other things you don’t learn at all. Unlike almost every other film about an assassin, it does not make it look kind of fun to be a paid killer.
All of the above are the film’s strengths, to which we might add the general casting. Beyond Clooney, we get a very strong cast, none of them known in America. The beautiful Violante Placido, whose name is cooler than that of any character she could ever possibly play, is the hooker with a heart of gold who enables Clooney’s emotional redemption, Paolo Bonacelli as a priest who probes the killer’s deeply submerged conscience, Thekla Reuten as a cool killer for whom Clooney is customizing a rifle, and Johan Leysen, the mysterious boss who, ultimately, symbolizes everything about the quiet horror of a life that Clooney longs to escape.
There’s a point in the film in which Clooney sits alone in a cafe, just him and the owner, with a TV running an old Sergio Leone movie. “Sergio Leone,” the cafe owner says with a bit of nationalistic pride. “He was Italian.” That’s an unsubtle clue to another purpose here. With a setting that’s as contemporary and urban as a centuries-old Italian village can be, director Anton Corbijn is giving us an understated tribute to Leone’s movies, slow-paced yet tension filled, about iconic character types in the Old West. He also stages a climax that feels very much like Corbijn’s take on a Leone setup.
Corbijn is creating an uncomfortable study in loneliness, and he works hard to put his viewer into the same emotional vacuum inhabited by Clooney. The film almost never uses a score, stripping the layer of meaning provided by an orchestral swell, that added cue to tell the viewer how to feel. To those of us raised on a steady diet of Hollywood film and TV, a musicless film is uncomfortable to watch. Almost the only time a score appears, in conjunction with crisp, time-compressing edits instead of more fully played scenes, is when Clooney works on modifying a gun for Reuten’s icily attractive fellow assassin. The one time the film makes us feel like we’re in our element is the only time Clooney’s character feels like he’s in his.
If the film has a weakness, it’s in the decision to provide us a gold-hearted whore and a moralizing priest. These would be unforgivable cliches in a film about, say, a depressed, middle-aged photographer moping around a tiny Italian village. But if you’re going to watch a movie about an international hit man, you can’t go complaining about hookers and priests seeming too contrived. Plus, Corbijn and screenwriter Rowan Jaffe (adapting a Martin Booth novel) play the film realistically, taking the broader elements of the traditional thriller and grounding them in the realistic misery Clooney’s life has brought him.
The film mixes bits of heavy-handed symbolism (references to butterflies, which become a totem for Clooney’s character) with a willingness to embrace mysteries. Many things are never made clear. It’s a movie that will reward repeated viewings.
People will complain that the film is too slow, and that if they watch a film about international killers, it should be of the Jason Bourne or James Bond flavors. Or even Evelyn Salt. If you can set aside your expectations for thrillers and embrace a quiet psychological study in which the phenomenally talented and hard-working George Clooney stretches beyond his movie-star image and manages to carry an entire film with barely a facial expression, you’ll find yourself watching a hell of a movie.