|“All men are sinners” – Jack (George Clooney).
Quiet, contemplative, subdued, and introspective, “The American” is not the action film it is marketed as. Despite George Clooney’s mid-stride run with a small pistol at his hip in the poster, the film packs very little action, per se, and plays more cerebral than one might expect.
Rowan Joffe’s engrossing screenplay introduces us to Jack (Clooney), a skilled assassin who fights his way out of a double-cross on assignment in Sweden. Unfortunately, lost in the gunplay is Jack’s girlfriend, Ingrid, and after surviving the attack on his life, Jack relocates to Rome. After connecting with his boss, Pavel (Johan Leysen), Jack adopts the alias Edward and identifies himself as an architectural photographer to those he encounters, including Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), a local priest. Secretly, Pavel has arranged Jack to take a new job, one that pays a large sum of money, for the mysterious Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). Mathilde, a skilled assassin in her own right, is shadowy and secretive and has paid for Jack to make her a highly advanced sniper rifle. Jack sets out to do his job, all the while carrying a suspicion that Swedish assassins are still on his trail. Jack decides to deliver the rifle as a last and final job, wanting out of the lifestyle.
Helping Jack reach his decision is the love Jack develops for a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido). After a couple of trysts, Jack begins to see Clara not as a prostitute but a woman he can see a future with. Clara sees Jack differently as well, and by initiating a date outside of their usual arrangement, Clara starts to fall for Jack. Naturally, the social life cannot avoid the professional one and Jack desperately tries to complete his job, while holding on to the future which may exist right in front of him.
One thing that struck me with “The American” is how good a movie it really is. While that may sound like a simple, perhaps even pedestrian analysis, it really is just good in virtually every way. The film has a methodical pace to it and never deviates from its deliberateness. Director Anton Corbijn, also an acclaimed photographer and music video director, frames the movie beautifully and through simple positioning in shots both close and wide, wrings quite a bit of emotion out of a rather simple story and a withdrawn and taut character. Martin Ruhe’s cinematography is tremendous, and there are some remarkable shots of the Italian community that Jack selects as a temporary home for his last job. Together, Corbijn and Ruhe present a film that incorporates interesting and subtle symbolism, effective in how it never dominates the film’s humble tone.
George Clooney delivers another terrific performance here. This is not the Clooney of “Michael Clayton”, “Out Of Sight”, or even “Up In The Air”; the affluent, assured, smartest mind in the room type of character. Rather, Clooney presents Jack as withdrawn, broken, and withering. His first genuine smile comes about an hour into the film when he arranges a date with Clara and Joffe’s screenplay offers Clooney the chance to evoke all we need to know about Jack’s pain, fear, and emotion through a wince, a glance, or quiet determination. When Jack begins to open himself up and emotionally invest in Clara, we may realize that Jack’s vision of a future with Clara may be short-sighted, yet for Jack, Clara is a new beginning, a retirement, someone he can rescue, and simply slip away with. Violante Placido is very good in her provocative performance as Clara.
Surrounded by an economical cast of little known Italian actors and actresses, Anton Corbijn smartly sets the entire film around Clooney. But there is a distinctive difference in the feel and look of this film, as compared to say a Jason Bourne film or a modernized James Bond actioner. In some ways, this is a non-action action film, which will throw many viewers expecting high adrenaline chase sequences and gunplay. In actuality, its deliberateness builds to a thrilling conclusion and concludes with an ambiguity that those invested in the film will equally love and despise. “The American” is really a throwback to a different era.
I may have not always bought the reasoning behind Jack’s decisions or even the rather cliched, “alright, one last job and I’m out” story arc, but much of “The American” worked for me. I could see past the iconic Clooney on screen and watch Jack appear before me. I believed his desperation and his withdrawn personality. And his interplay with a local Father in his communal town offers the film much of the moral conflict Jack grapples with while working for Mathilde.
“The American” will not hold up for fans of action movies, nor will the film satiate those who like their emotions and feelings spoonfed to them. Much of the film may come across as joyless and rather dour. Its success lies in its ability to take those all-too familiar ingredients of a mystery and suspense/thriller, toss them into the movie blender and still generate something fresh and unique. With Clooney’s change of pace performance, “The American” is a film that may strike a chord with you and certainly evoke a reaction, perhaps even something deeper for you than I could allow.
George Clooney is a great actor and this is a bit of a change for him with his recent Oscar-nominated work. He delivers a different tone with his performance and reminds us again that he is a truly great actor.
Fans of 1960′s or 1970′s Italian or European suspense thrillers, will find this a nifty little throwback piece. That it looks and feels different than other films with similar plot structure, is rather refreshing.
Anton Corbijn is a master of visual presentation. He is already top shelf with his work as a photographer and music video director, and he has seemingly developed the ability to deliver on the big screen. Cannot wait for the next effort to come along.
So, I will not spoil the film, but be prepared for an ending that is absolutely not something the big studios would deliver. The film’s conclusion will polarize mainstream audiences. So, be warned if you like everything wrapped up in your conclusions.
Marketed as an action film, this is not at all what those fans will be expecting. Really it is a character-driven drama and fans of the high octane, pulsing music score, and rapidly edited car chases and shootouts, will be thrown by the quiet, non-action this “action film” puts forth.
A flawed man, disengaged emotionally, who seeks the solace of a prostitute, as well as his stunning decision at the beginning of the film and his work as an assassin-for-hire, may be simply too off-putting for you to emotionally connect with Jack.