It was something of a pleasure to see Anton Corbijn's The American, because in this day and age of hurlyburly on the screen, this is one of the most quiet and thoughtful films one can find in a multiplex. It's as if an art house film had disguised itself and attempted to pass as a Hollywood blockbuster. It's lovely to look at, and George Clooney gives an excellent, and atypical performance. However, my praise only goes so far, as the film over does it on being coy.
Clooney is the mysterious Jack, or is it Edward? Everything about the advanced word of this film indicates he's a hit man, but that's not spelled out in the film, as we never see him actually assassinate anyone. We do know he's handy with a gun, as the opening scene, in snowy Sweden, has him come under attack from two gunmen. He escapes to Rome, and his contact, a leather-faced man played by Johan Leysen, points him to small town in Abruzzo, and Clooney hides out, using the profession of photographer as cover.
Leysen gives him a job, but it's to make a custom weapon for a beautiful assassin (Thekla Reuten). Long, languorous scenes are spent as Clooney crafts the weapon. He tells the local priest that he's no good with machines, but that is clearly a lie, as he has a gift for munitions.
He forms an attachment with a local prostitute (Violante Placido), but when another Swede shows up trying to kill him, he becomes suspicious of her, mainly because she carries a gun in her bag, but maybe he should be because she falls in love with him--a plot development which is a cliche and a basic male fantasy. Both she and Reklen call him Mr. Butterfly--Placido because of a tattoo. Maybe he was a big fan of the Steve McQueen film, Papillon.
This is an extraordinarily quiet film, with minimal music and long stretches of absolute silence. It also plays very close to the vest in giving away information. This is a choice of Corbijn and his screenwriter, Rowan Joffe, not a mistake, but one that requires a greater bit of focus than we're used to, and I must admit that in the last act of the film I was running out of patience. The climax of the film took me a while to understand, and doesn't give any answers as to why Swedes were after him at all, but instead ends with a bit of poignant symbolism.
Since George Clooney is credited as a producer of this film, one can't help but wonder if it was all calculated on his part. As I said, this is not a typical role for him--his gunman lacks the twinkle we expect from Clooney, and there are many scenes of him, shirtless, doing push-ups and pull-ups. He's well known for having a vacation home in Italy, so perhaps this project was a way for him to try to change his image, spend some additional time in beautiful Italian mountains, and get to have some pretty steamy sex scenes with a hot Italian chick. Not a bad workday, and the result is a pretty good film that is geared toward thinking adults, the ADD-afflicted teenagers be damned.