It's a testament to George Clooney's charisma that The American is as watchable as it is since for long stretches of Anton Corbijn's film the audience is asked to regard him simply being, doing not much of anything. We are provided with the barest of bare bones introductions to Clooney's Jack, gathering that he is a professional assassin or is at least employed by professional assassins, and that his work has begun to weigh on his soul. We gather that Jack is remorseful not so much because the movie shows us, but because Clooney is inherently likable and we want to think the best of him. After that we simply observe him as he lays low in a tiny Italian town hiding from Swedes bent on killing him for we know not what reasons. The American's technique is to strip the story down to its basic elements, but I fear that in their attempt to trim the fat from the story they have disposed of some essential parts as well.
Director Corbijn and Cinematographer Martin Ruhe have created a wonderfully atmospheric film, lots of twisty mountain roads and dimly lit cobble stone alcoves, but eventually all that style has to be in service of something. Even in storytelling as spare as Melville's Le Samouri, another story of a solitary killer, we were still able to draw conclusions about the main character from his actions, no matter how silent and still he behaved. Not so in The American where about 90% of Clooney's actions are limited to visiting a prostitute, drinking cappuccino and looking over his shoulder for killers.
His encounters with the films supporting cast are mostly limited to Clooney being as taciturn as possible in order to avoid becoming entangled in personal relationships. This can be effective up to a point, but The American crosses that point about thirty minutes in and keeps right on going. We grasp quickly that Clooney's lifestyle has all but eliminated his humanity, but The American keeps repeating variations on the same scene - suspicion and isolation - over and over again, until we're pining for Clooney to just say "Screw it" and send his adversaries an engraved invitation with his name and address so he can just drop the paranoia and settle things already.
We could get by with this minimalist approach if the script spent the rest of the time detailing the life of an assassin. If we can't get to know a character through traditional exposition we can watch him reveal himself through this work, and honestly, who is not fascinated by the how-to of professional killing? Unfortunately, The American skimps on the kind of technical details we look for in a film like this. We get a few scenes of Clooney constructing a specialized rifle but these underwhelm, mostly showing him clicking random metal bits together or going out to a secluded lake to shoot at flowers.
Why do the buyers need such a special weapon? What makes Clooney so uniquely talented? What does he do that a thousands other craftsmen couldn't also do? How do people find him to hire him? What risk does he take by accepting this job? We never get answers to any of these questions. In The Day of Jackal, the gold standard of assassin movies, we were presented with a wealth of fascinating details about the skill set of a master killer. Compare that to The American where the most interesting part of his job we are shown consists of Clooney whacking gun parts with a hammer.
I also regret to report that the action, what there is of it, is pretty lackluster. Corbijn needs to rent some Hitchcock so he can get a better grasp on creating the suspense of a good action scene. Often the audience is never given a clear sense of the geography so that the battle of wits between enemies is lost. More than once it seems like an opponent has Clooney dead to rights and then pow-pow-pow, Clooney drops him and we're left wondering what just happened. The other times when the action is more coherent (the film's climax is pretty clear and there is a decent chase scene involving a Vespa) we still don't know enough about what the protagonist is thinking for his decisions to have much of an impact. The sniper movie Enemy at the Gates was far from a masterpiece, but at least it always gave you a clear understanding of where the key players were in relation to each other, how they got into and out of stand-offs, and what the stakes were to all involved.
Clooney does what he can with the part but there is only so much an actor can create out of 100 minutes of troubled glances. The supporting players' interactions with Clooney are so terse that don't have much opportunity to register as characters. The gorgeous Violante Placido makes the biggest impression as the prostitute who may have a chance at teasing some humanity out of Clooney, but it's hard to buy their relationship when we are asked to believe she's falling for Clooney's character when he's barely sent more than two sentences in her direction in succession. Thekla Reuten (you may remember her as the pregnant hotel owner from In Bruges) has great presence as the women buying the special weapon from Clooney, but she is wasted with little to do other than give off vaguely dangerous vibes, inspiring opportunities for yet more troubled glances from Clooney.
I hear myself criticizing and I cringe a little because it sounds like I'm knocking a movie for doing what I so often complain movies don't do, namely, be patient, don't over-explain, have attention span enough not to throw pointless action at us every ten minutes. I'm not saying that we needed to pile on the melodrama here, but The American dials things down so low we disengage. It's an admirable attempt. I respect the motives of everyone involved to create a slow burning thriller without relying on the usual bullshit Hollywood crutches. I'd be interested to see another film from this creative team. The director has a great eye and a rare focus. But the fact is The American misses the mark, never finding reason enough to justify occupying two hours of our time.