Mis-marketed as a “one last job” action-thriller, The American is a much more peaceful film than the studio might want you to believe. The trailer appears to be set-up; it wants to you to think that, after all of the scenes in the trailer are over with, there’s still going to be a ton of action afterward. In reality, there are only a couple of action scenes, both of which are short. The rest is centered around talking, paranoia, red herrings, and, indeed, one last job — although it only becomes such very late into the film.
George Clooney stars in and produces this film, which is an adaptation of Martin Booth’s novel, A Very Private Gentleman. That’s a more fitting title, considering Clooney’s character, a man named Jack, or perhaps Edward, who ends up hiding out in Italy after Swedish assassins find him hiding out in a forest. He’s an assassin, too, or so we’re led to believe. He works for a man who has connections and can hide him. That is all that we need to know. While hiding, he’s told that there’s a job: He has to build a weapon, and that’s it.
This seems like a simple task, does it not? And for a man of Jack’s caliber, it is. The gun gets made with no issues. By the 45 minute marks, that’s about all that has happened. However, the time has flown by. Scarce dialogue, and many moments of Jack sitting alone, working, have managed to engulf us. At this point, whatever direction the film takes, it’ll be a success. We’ve bought into this character, this situation, and we just want to see where the film will bring him and it.
Where it does take us is on a wild ride, even for a slower paced adventure like this one. Jack meets a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), with whom he falls in love. There’s the ever-present threat of assassins who want him dead for … some reason. There’s the possibility of betrayal coming from every corner. And there’s this lonely, solemn man. This is a thrilling character study, which is something you don’t see very often. One or the other, usually, but not both put together. Both elements are present and done very well in The American.
This is a film that rests squarely on the shoulders of George Clooney, who perhaps took the role because it means he got a “working vacation” in Italy and he got to be close to some very attractive women. Maybe he really cared about it, but that’s an invitation that I figure most men would take in a heartbeat. He’s a stoic hero, one whose emotional range is limited, but that’s because he’s always thinking, always looking. He’s a reliable actor who is good here. We believe he could be an assassin on the run.
The American could be described as the “thinking man’s action film,” although that’s still not quite proper considering how little action there is. It does make you think, however, and you must be patient with it. It isn’t going to spell everything out for you, or give you numerous sequences of narration to explain to you why something happened. Even the back story remains ambiguous and unexplained. It’s about the character as he is now, and you have to work to figure out everything about him.
What doesn’t quite work out is the relationship between Jack and Carla. It doesn’t start until after the 45 minute mark, and while it’s well-established that Jack is a lonely, lonely man, Carla comes across as someone who exists to either be the one who double crosses him, or to be a red herring. Their relationship doesn’t feel real, in large part because it only gets a few scenes to develop. They’re key moments, and they’re sweet, but introducing Carla earlier on and building it up more slowly might have made it more effective.
It also might have made it fit in more with the rest of the movie. This is a slow-burner, for the most part, but their relationships takes off like a rocket and stays at that speed throughout, which puts it in stark contrast. Perhaps this was done precisely for that reason — separate it from the rest of the story just by making it progress at a different speed — but that’s all it does. It draws attention to itself and nothing more, and would have felt more organic had it been taken slower.
Clooney has the job of trying to make us think without saying a word. He has to reveal his character to us without much dialogue, and also can’t be terribly emotional; he’s a trained assassin, after all, where logic trumps emotion. Violante Placido has to do little more than look attractive in her part, although there’s some subtlety to her performance, too; she’s not just a pretty face here. She might be hiding something, but she might not. Who knows?
The American is a very subdued thriller. It’s more of a character study than anything else, but it’s fascinating and very intense on top of that. It makes and requires you to think, as it doesn’t reveal any more than is necessary at the time, and sometimes even less than that. It brings you to a beautiful location, and engages you with swift direction — despite the slow pacing — and it contains a stoic, strong, and surprisingly silent performance by handsome man George Clooney, who is as effective here as he ever is.