Despite the sparse but nonetheless action-orientated posters currently adorning buses, underground stations and cinema complexes, The American is a meditative, tranquil tale with an ominous air of doom hanging over it. You can almost hear the Grim Reaper sharpening his scythe in preparation of an indiscriminate cull. Indeed, the typography and design of the advertising campaign accurately reflects the film’s dual nationality and ambience; the hybrid of a powerful Hollywood A-lister with a European art-house sensibility which acts as an appropriate companion piece to Rafi Pitt‘s almost brilliant The Hunter.
The ‘American’ of the title is the consistently handsome and enigmatic George Clooney, once again doing his best impression of Burt Lancaster’s ‘European’ enterprises in the 1960s and ‘70s. However, like the latter actor, ‘European’ is probably best defined not so much by the origin of the script or the nationality of the director, but by the aesthetic and rhythmical pattern the film adopts; a languid, peculiarly picturesque and slow-paced study of a weapons expert equipped with an assassin’s instinct who prefers not to speak and to keep meaningful human contact at a distance (an appropriate metaphor for a man seemingly accustomed to long range kills).
Shot in multiple locations, Jack (Clooney), who later disguises himself as ‘Edward’, is first seen enjoying a comfortably isolated existence with his girlfriend in a Sweden beset by winter. Taking a stroll one afternoon Jack senses being surrounded and, like Jason Bourne, proceeds to take out his would be assassins, extinguishing his innocent lover without hesitation as a smoker would a cigarette. Panicking, Jack telephones Pavel (Johan Leysen) and is advised to flee to a remote location in Italy. Fearing his superior’s duplicity, Jack goes further into hiding, befriending Father Benedito (Paolo Bonacelli), a morally-transgressive (albeit innocent) priest with a bastard son in tow. Alone in a quiet town, Jack begins employing the services of prostitute Clara (Violante Placido) with whom he later develops a deeper ‘non-professional’ relationship.
Declining the opportunity to seek absolution at Benedito’s request, Jack confers with Pavel and agrees to build a custom made weapon, the requirement being that it be as discreet as possible when fired (as opposed to regular hired killers who delight in loud conspicuous homicidal acts?) so as to allow the shooter to escape. Double crossing and paranoia ensues as Jack/Edward must try to identify who it is that is so intent on snuffing him out.
Directed by Anton Corbijn, best known for his biopic of Ian Curtis in Control, the mood is ostensibly melancholy and photographic, with Clooney handed hardly any dialogue, his sole human contact restricted to prostitutes and a priest. On paper the dichotomy appears an interesting one but projected on screen the metaphors are heavy-handed and, frankly, tremendously obvious: The conveniently timed chiming of church bells pathetically imitating Tarkovsky amongst other directors who’ve employed the same device.
However, as one of the finest actors of his generation, Clooney imbues the film with an understated performance, forming the complex psychology of a desperately exhausted man that may have been beyond one of his many contemporaries. Hampered by a rather predictable conclusion and undermined by its own self-aggrandisement, The American is ultimately a rather hollow venture but an enjoyable one at that.