I knew after its first five minutes that I was going to love The American. The opening scene, which I see no reason to reveal here, sets the tone perfectly. We know that we’re in for something different. Something deliberately paced (i.e. slow), something expressionistic (i.e. not a lot of explaining) and something bold (i.e. George Clooney minus the charm).
In fact, The American is the best foreign film (that just happens to be an American film) that I’ve seen in years. Save the title and its star, there is nothing inherently American about this movie. Which, for the purposes of exploring familiar themes using unconventional methods, is a very good thing.
Clooney plays an assassin hiding out in a small Italian village after being mysteriously ambushed. While hiding out, his employer contracts him to build a weapon from scratch for another would-be assassin. He soon meets and falls for a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold and decides that this job will be his last.
That’s pretty much it. On the surface, there isn’t a whole hell of a lot going on here. And that’s just the way skilled director Anton Corbijn wants it to appear.
In a three-sentence plot description, The American comes off as a flick full of clichés. Not a chance. First off, focus on the scenery, which itself acts as a character. Corbijn, much in the way of the great Michael Haneke, shows you something, but doesn’t guide you. There’s no sudden close up urging the viewer to LOOK OVER HERE. No. You have to find the clues for yourself, which is very un-American as far as filmmaking goes.
Next, throw in one of the most recognizable faces in the world as your lead, and have him play a character unlike any other he’s played. As Jack (or Edward, or who ever) George Clooney delivers the most controlled performance of his career. His dialogue is sparse (it maybe adds up to 10 script pages of talking) which causes him to tell his story with his eyes and face, something Clooney is often ignored for doing in other roles.
Lastly, how about that “one last job” bit? For every movie that has done this brilliantly (Heat, Inception), there are four that have failed at it. This one succeeds because Jack’s final job is underplayed by the elimination of risk (making a gun isn’t as tough as, say, killing a high profile figure) and the fact that it is mentioned only once in passing.
Watching The American, I was reminded of the great foreign directors. Parts of the film – the dialogue as an afterthought, the extended shots of landscapes, little exposition – are supremely Ingmar Bergman. Other parts – the nonchalant sexuality, the quick action sequences – were reminiscent of Antonioni. And all the better.
Given the film’s modest box office take, it’s obvious that people aren’t flocking to see this. That’s a shame. If they did, they’d know that The American is one of the very best films to be released this year. Go for something different. A