There are lots of words and phrases that can describe a movie about an assassin. Violent. Action packed. Visceral. Crazy. But with The American, words like calm and peaceful come to mind. Rather than the action movie the misleading trailers suggest, The American is a quiet look into the pathos of an assassin who, despite his lifestyle, has powerful feelings and emotions that conflict with his duties.
George Clooney plays the assassin named Jack. After an assassination attempt on his life that may or may not have been set up by his girlfriend in Sweden, he relocates to Italy, on the run from the Swedes and in hiding. But while there he takes on a job from Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), who asks him to build a rapid fire gun that can be aimed with deadly accuracy from a long distance.
As simple as it sounds, that is the main story in The American, but that perception of the film is deceiving. Jack is a multi-layered character that lives in a world where anyone and everyone can be, and most likely is, an enemy. He is always on the watch, careful, calculated and soft spoken, but he feels like any other human being. He is lonely and longs for companionship. He creates a friendship with the local priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), despite being told not to. He visits a brothel at night to satisfy his physical needs with Clara (Violante Placido), whom he eventually sparks a real romance with, though he knows he shouldn’t. His lifestyle forces him to hide in the shadows, secluded in an empty apartment by himself, but that doesn’t suit him. He wants to really live and takes many chances knowing full well that the consequence of death could await him.
What he has done in the past is never explained, nor is the reason the Swedes want him dead, but The American isn’t about that. It exists in the moment and tells you just enough so you can watch without confusion and director Anton Corbijn does a masterful job of keeping it tight and focused. With such a beautiful and assured look, you’d think we’d be dealing with a seasoned pro, yet Corbijn has mostly worked on music videos known for their loud, off-the-wall feeling, but thankfully dials it down here with a tranquil, slow, thinking man’s movie.
At times, you could even call The American poetic, with a final shot as beautiful and meaningful as any I’ve seen this year. Mentioning why would be misunderstood by those who haven’t seen the movie, but the butterfly motif and all that it stands for speaks so much about Jack that it isn’t until this closing moment that you truly feel like you know him.
And that’s a good thing. Clooney keeps the character emotionally mysterious. He never smiles, he rarely talks and he admirably balances the feelings of fear and paranoia with alienation and loneliness. Many have stated that Clooney comes off as curiously cold in this role, not showcasing his abilities as an actor as he has in the past, but it seems to me that those people mistake his acting for the overall quality of the movie. Is this as good as Michael Clayton or Up in the Air? No, but it’s no fault of Clooney. He is fantastic here and the reason he comes off as less lively is because his character calls for him to. Without him, The American would be, like Jack himself, in search of a soul.
The American receives 4.5/5