The American is a George Clooney film, directed by Anton Corbijn. It is aiming for a particular niche, or 'feel' - that of the quiet, mood-based sub-thriller. This is a mark recently revived in popularity by such films as the excellent In Bruges - works of careful composition involving scenery, setup and sound built to produce a near-flat affect, punctuated by moments of violence.
The film opens with the title character, 'Jack,' and a woman leaving a cabin in a snowy wilderness and heading out for a walk across a frozen lake. They come across a set of footprints - but only one. Jack reacts, suddenly, which confuses the woman, and then immediately things get...complicated.
Before the opening credits roll, however, Jack is on his way to a small town in Italy to await his next job.
The film is paced well. It is expertly shot. The night-time streets of the small Italian town that Jack inhabits become a slightly otherworldly backdrop, with the feeling of Jim Jarmusch's Night On Earth. We're mostly sure of what Jack does for a living, although we're not given any details. We watch him carry out a 'hands off' job. Although he knows he shouldn't, Jack becomes friendly with two people in this town - a priest who wonders what his secret is, and a prostitute who becomes interested in him.
So. What's to like? The film itself is, as I said, expertly made. The shots, pacing, setup, music and script (based on a novel by Martin Booth) are all spare in the good sense - a spare elegance, almost. This is a movie of people's expressions, and then, focused in on their eyes rather than their face. Mr. Clooney, with his famous visage locked into near-immobility for almost all of the film, carries that off perfectly. Only at the very end does his poker face fail, for reasons that make perfect sense, and he does that, too, well.
But. There's a but. I was pretty obvious about it. This film suffers from being too spare. In the end, we still don't know very much at all about what Jack has done or why - but because Clooney and Corbijn have locked the character down so tightly, there is no room for us to become attached to his current self and his motives or feelings, either. Jack is a cutout, a silhouette of a trope embedded in a quiet and empty film. Whereas In Bruges gave us a conflict for the protagonists and expertly manipulated that to tell us about their personalities and characters, The American gives us a well-built diorama with a very precisely formed empty cutout in the middle where a protagonist should be. If you enjoy the technical process of making a movie, and the challenges of cinematography and creating a mood, then there is material here to sink your teeth into. But if you watch movies for the stories of their characters, this will, I think, leave you unfulfilled and disappointed no matter how much you may appreciate the craft that went into its making.
The American (2010)
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Starring George Clooney, Violante Placido, Paolo Bonacelli, Thekla Reuten.