George Clooney is a taciturn assassin hanging out with hot, frequently naked European women in The American, a pretty, well-crafted, well-acted, retro-cool snooze of a movie.
We first meet Jack (Clooney) in Sweden, where he is hanging out in a cozy hunting lodge with a woman who is clearly some kind of intimate. They are enjoying what seems like a lovely walk on a snowy day when suddenly he has to shoot a couple of guys and then the woman, and, for reasons unknown, this makes him head to Rome. There, he takes help from Pavel (Johan Leysen), his employer, and lays low in a small Italian village in Abruzzo, wherein Jack befriends a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), and tries to dodge a mysterious man trailing him, all while carefully building a massive gun to be used in an upcoming job by fellow assassin Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) and reconsidering the course of his life.
Maybe. That last part is mostly implied by the meaningful middle-distance gazes of Jack while in repose and the mixture of worry and fatigue we see on his face at varying times. And then there are the double-meaning conversations he has with both his working-girl girlfriend and the priest, all very minimal Don-Draper-ese dialogue and open-to-interpretation facial expressions. It is, actually, some masterful work on the part of Clooney, enhanced by excellent cinematography that makes the Italian countryside look forlorn, lovely and sinister all at once and directing and editing that give us long, dialogue-free stretches, like when Jack is constructing a high-powered rifle, that are stylistically reminiscent of 1970s films like The Conversation. You are watching some top-notch work here, all very serious and ssshhnzzzz… I’m sorry; no, I wasn’t sleeping, just resting my eyes and face. Hey, it’s unfair to put someone in a big cushy chair, in a dark theater, serenade them with a bare-bones score and then expect them to stay awake while nothing happens in your movie.
Sadly, I went in to The American caffeinated enough that I didn’t actually fall asleep, so I felt each and every uneventful minute tick by. No, I don’t need every movie to be an explosion of Michael Bayness set to a John Williams score. But so very little happens here it feels less like a motion picture and more like a slide show of someone’s very lonely vacation. Countryside, Clooney, crumbling building, Clooney with his shirt off, brick walkway, half-naked Italian prostitute, countryside…. Yes, it’s all very pretty and yes I felt while I was watching the movie that it was Important, but I couldn’t once bring myself to care. Not about Clooney, not about what happens to him. It was intellectually interesting to see what the movie was doing, to think about the other films it reminded me of. But a trip to the theater shouldn’t have to be a comparative film class to be worthwhile.
There is a stretch of scenes involving Jack’s construction of a silencer for a very large rifle — it’s fascinating, this high-end weaponry fabrication accomplished with car parts. It’s fascinating like having someone explain Moby-Dick to you can be fascinating, like learning the first few lines of Beowulf in Old English is fascinating. And, as in those cases, it leaves you with the overall feeling that The American is something very impressive that you have no interest in sitting through. C
Rated R for violence, sexual content and nudity. Directed by Anton Corbijn and written by Rowan Joffe (from a novel by Martin Booth), The American is an hour and 35 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Focus Features.