The American doesn’t give us much, and in that way the title almost seems to ring with irony. Of course, it is about an American, played by one of the most famous and charming of Americans, but the film itself is far too deliberately paced, action-light, and guarded with information to ever be mistaken for a spiritually American film. Directed by Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbjin, former U2 and Depeche Mode visual designer, as well as the director of the widely acclaimed Control, the film takes the standard last-job assassin tale and turns the knobs on the sound, action, and exposition way down to the point where the film nearly feels muted. This has the curious effect of creating a sort of vibrating tension, a heightened sense of awareness that offers us a sensory window into what it might feel like to be a target, to be hunted.
From the first cold opening frames of the film it is obvious Jack (George Clooney) is not a man who wants his location known. Within minutes we witness him unflinchingly abandon his current situation, and get a good look at his willingness to coldly sever ties with whatever might drag him down. We are not shown much beyond the fact that he is being hunted, and that an associate will begrudgingly help him disappear and take on a new job. There is never even the slightest hint of trust. When the opening credits finally begin, they play over sustained moody shots of Jack driving through European countryside. There is the feeling that this happens frequently.
Almost as if it’s going to become a deathly dramatic take on In Bruge, Jack ends up in a small Italian town, awaiting his assignment. It is here that one may start to notice the soundscape of the film- or rather, the lack of it. I do not exaggerate when I say this is one of the quietest and most subdued-sounding modern movies I’ve ever heard. It is not a silent film –everything is covered as it should be– but there is a haunting quietness that at first seems to desaturate the film. Soon though, as Jack sips his coffee and you hear a character arrive in their car, open and shut the door, and walk up, you realize that we’re hearing through the trained ears of a man who has learned to filter out the noise of the unimportant and pick up on the details. An out of place door slam or dropped utensil could mark the moment where Jack’s life is threatened, and we carefully listen along with him. This forced sense of calm enhances the small moments and lends a precision to everything on screen. It is not paranoia so much as Purgatory.
Jack receives his assignment and we learn that he is not exactly an assassin but rather an expert builder of custom weaponry (though he obviously pulls the trigger from time to time). And while he receives the order for a special weapon from the beautiful Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), Jack’s attention is focused solely on the local prostitute Clara, played by a stunning and rarely-clothed Violante Placido. That Jack’s first couple of visits with Clara are bathed in an overwhelming fiery-red glow seems extra symbolic considering his only other companion in the town is Father Benedetto, a priest who doesn’t believe Jack’s lie that he is “no good with machines,” and appears to have an innate understanding of Jack’s sinful life. Jack is entirely comfortable with neither of these companions, though he seems at ease and at home when selecting tools, unwrapping parts, and assembling pieces of the intimidating weaponry he customizes with exactly precision.
Naturally Clooney is rarely off the screen for more than a moment, and as you might expect he carries the film strongly. It’s a treat to see Clooney play down the charm and poise we typically associate with him, without resorting to obvious gruffness. Jack is a confident guy, but he’s not an instant charmer. He’s aware and constantly vigilant in his surroundings, but he’s not a constantly-checking-over-his-shoulder paranoid. While it’s not necessarily his best performance, Clooney reminds us in The American what an astonishing gift it is that we have him to grace our screens (and not just in Ocean’s movies). The quality of Clooney’s performance is consistently supported by incredible photography from Martin Ruhe.
The film is as unhurried as it is beautiful, and only picks up for anything resembling an “action scene” once for a vehicle-chase that is fairly quick and standard, but feels explosive in the middle of such a stoic movie. What action is there is good though, and the flashes of violence are brutal and realistic. People in The American don’t shoot at each other for ten minutes and waste dozens of rounds, they shoot each other and someone dies. Quickly. Your pulse is more likely to be quickened by the moments of perceived danger, rather than the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them gunfights.
Ultimately this film is about a man reaching the conclusion of a dangerous career, and the contemplation of his final destiny. There are no twists- who is going to do what to whom is obvious from the beginning- and no attempt is made to create false build-up to events we know are coming. If someone is going to shoot someone, we don’t cut back and forth between the squeezing trigger and the unaware victim half a dozen times- it just happens. Less glamorized action is actually exhilarating in its own surprising and unique way. Jack is almost constantly in control as well, so we must take our enjoyment not from a processions of reversals and will-he-make-it? suspense, but from the event’s meaning to Jack. There is a healthy amount of symbolism and loaded dialogue, but I question whether or not the film gives us quite enough of any entry point into these character’s to draw too much from the events though. The most time is spent with Clara, but there is too much suspicion and not enough understanding of her character for her to offer us a great deal beyond acting as a symbol for Jack.
I would have appreciated even a hint of a deeper look into who these people are, but there’s something fascinating about watching a huge moment in someone’s life knowing so little about them. Some viewers will see graceful storytelling, while others will see only unapproachable distance. My own impression leans towards the positive, but I couldn’t blame someone for not connecting with the material. I sat for much of the runtime of The American thinking I might be watching a spy/action-movie take on Let The Right One In, and while I’m not convinced there’s enough meat on these characters to push it to anything resembling that level of a masterpiece, it’s certainly a similar breath of fresh air for the genre. A slow, measured breath.