George Clooney has locked onto a certain career path. Given that he’s gray and in his 50s, he’s taking on a lot of roles where, well, he’s a man at a crossroads. Maybe he’s a businessman who realizes that he’s spent his lonely life on the road and now wants a family. Maybe he’s a career criminal whose brother breaks him out of jail to kill vampires and kidnap Harvey Keitel and steal his RV, only to realize that he wants a family.
Once again, George Clooney gets to play out his real life midlife crisis on screen in The American, only this time he gets to bed a beautiful Italian woman and drink a whole lot of watered-down espresso. Kind of like what he does every day, except this time George plays Jack/Edward, a multi-pseudonymous American assassin/secret agent kind of guy who is on the run from some Swedes who want to kill him.
Turning to an old handler/contact named Pavel (Johan Leysen), Jack finds himself hiding out in Italy, where he takes one last job to finance his retirement. Thus unfolds the web of intrigue as Jack procures a weapon for female assassin, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), at Pavel’s request, all the while dodging men who want to kill him and suspecting everyone around him of potential threat, including the beautiful Italian prostitute he falls in love with, Clara (Violante Placido).
The American sounds like a no holds barred, kick-ass action thriller, right? Actually, it’s not. It’s actually a character study of a haunted and lonely man who wants nothing more than a way out, but finds himself constantly on the run from his past, in both literal and metaphorical senses.
George Clooney doesn’t have to say a lot in this movie. His brooding, haunted face does all the heavy lifting. In fact, no one in The American says a whole lot. Sometimes, bits of less than meaningful conversation are held off-screen, merely to be implied by the viewer.
The movie relies heavily on beautiful Italian scenery, the faces of the actors, body language, and brief outbursts of violence to communicate with the audience. In that sense, it’s very similar to a samurai film or spaghetti western (and indeed, one of Sergio Leone’s classics plays on the TV in a bar). It’s also one of the hardest things for an actor to pull off, and Clooney’s command of his facial expressions and body language is very impressive. He says so much with just the quirky tilt of a brow or a tightening of his jaw that words are unnecessary.
This movie is as tight as a drum. There’s not a single wasted shot in the whole of the film’s 95 minutes. The musical cues are very subtle, when they’re present. Director Anton Corbijn laces this movie together like the teeth of a clock, or like the winding narrow streets, courtyards, and corridors of the Italian hillside village where Clooney’s haunted assassin tries his damnedest to run from the people on his tail.
Every word of dialog in Rowan Joffe’s script, however terse, is loaded with meaning and conveys something. It all fits together, and to pay attention is to be rewarded.
Fortunately, Corbijn is a director that has no difficulty guiding the viewer’s eyes to the proper places, thanks to some wonderful shot framing from Corbijn and cinematographer Martin Ruhe. This is a beautiful movie, taking full advantage of the natural beauty of the Italian countryside, a film whose construction is as intricate as the plot, which is as simple and familiar as it is ethereal and potent.
While the movie isn’t for everyone, it’s an excellent film. To put it bluntly, the movie rewards viewers for being as paranoid as the main character, and that sense of danger lurking around every corner, of long stretches of silence broken up by the forceful assembly of an assault rifle or the sputtering backfire of a Vespa, is what really carries the movie through to the climax.
I just hope that most of the audience can make it that far, since there are no 10-minute car chases, special effects, or machine gun battles. There’s just brilliant performances to behold and impeccable craftsmanship on display.
US correspondent Ron Hogan is The American. That’s why he’s the US correspondent, not the Swaziland correspondent. That’d make him The African. Find more by Ron at his blog, Subtle Bluntness, and daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.