After a summer full of super-loud, over-the-top, violent blockbusters (The Expendables, Salt, Predators), The American is a welcome retreat to the more nuanced thrillers usually reserved for the late fall.
There’s no slap-dash editing, no violent shoot-outs on crowded city streets, and the only ‘car chase’ involves a little Italian scooter. Instead, we get a quiet, reserved performance from George Clooney, some of the most beautiful cinematography to hit the screen this year, and a flat-out excellent movie.
The American is far from a crowd-pleaser. In fact, some (if not many) people will leave the theater disappointed, longing for some action. Others, though, will thoroughly enjoy it, if for no other reason than your ears won’t be ringing as you climb into your car to head home.
Clooney plays Jack (or Edward, depending on who he’s with), an international assassin who’s as methodical as he is stone-faced. Don’t go in expecting another Jason Bourne caricature. He’s a lone gunman– a stoic man who never raises his voice, never loses his cool, and, frankly, appears to be the best in the business at what he does.
During the intense, brief prologue set in a snowy Swedish wilderness, we quickly learn exactly how methodical (and professional) he is. The movie then quickly switches locales to Rome, where Jack learns his next assignment– construct a deadly accurate, semi-automatic sniper rifle and report to the beautiful Apulian countryside on Italy’s east coast (about 8 hours down the A14 from Clooney’s villa on Lake Como) to deliver it to fellow assassin Ingrid (Irina Björklund).
When he arrives, he meets what seem to be the small town’s only two inhabitants, a local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and a Clara (Violante Placido), a prostitute. Both are just what the doctor ordered, as slowly (but surely) Jack starts to come out of his shell.
The script by Rowan Joffe (from Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman) is first-rate– an exercise in ‘less is more’ that should be required reading in Screenwriting 101 classes across the country. Many of Clooney’s lines are single words or terse phrases that nevertheless resonate as loudly as entire speeches in other, less polished films.
Director Anton Corbijn is known primarily in the pop culture world as a photographer for music acts like U2 (he shot the iconic cover for The Joshua Tree) and Depeche Mode (for whom he also directed no less than 15 videos). His keen eye and passion for correctly framing a shot helps turn The American into a beautiful, stunning motion picture, which, incidentally, makes Eat Pray Love look even more like a failed attempt at an Italian travelogue than it already did.
You could call The American an ‘art’ film, a quiet meditation on man’s renewal, or a suspenseful, intense thriller. Then again, you could also just call it boring.
It’s not a question of ‘getting it’. It’s a question of personal taste and expectations; if you’re up for a break from the big-bang-boom summer blockbusters, you won’t be disappointed.