Title: The American
Year of Release: 2010
Date Viewed: March 20th, 2011
MPAA Rating: R
One day while browsing the IMDB home page for entertainment news headlines, I came across a link to a story concerning a screening of George Clooney's latest film The American. This was just a few weeks before its nationwide release. The provocative headline reported that the vast majority of the test audience professed strong negative reactions to the film. The author speculated that the early feedback could hurt the ongoing marketing. The article sparked my curiosity as they usually do when the content is filled with that kind of sensationalism. I eventually rented this movie with moderate reservations because the article had never left my memory. It was easy to understand and sympathize with that preview crowd. But I would not have joined their rally.
In the attention-gripping prologue, aging assassin Jack and his girlfriend are enjoying a peaceful morning in an isolated region of Sweden. Everything swiftly changes when the pair is ambushed by someone wanting them dead. Jack saves themselves from the shooter and then intentionally kills his girlfriend before leaving the scene. The action is fueled by no visible motivation so it can only be assumed that he did it under suspicion of a double cross.
After jumping around a few European towns, Jack eventually settles again somewhere in Italy. His mysterious employer assigns a new job. A fellow assassin (Thekla Reuten) wishes to acquire a top of the line sniper rifle for use on a local target and asks Jack to construct it for her. While this is being done, Jack woos a local prostitute (Violante Placido) to help fill the void of loneliness left behind from his former girlfriend's presence. It's implied that the incident in Sweden weighs heavily on his mind, possibly with a lot of guilt. It does not however affect his lingering sense of paranoia, because no matter where the American runs and hides, he will never find complete sanctuary from sudden death.
As stated earlier, it's easy to understand why some viewers will feel let down. This is not the movie that was promised by the studio promotional trailers. This is not George Clooney running and shooting through elaborate set pieces accompanied by pulsating music. It's actually an arthouse character study in the tradition of serious foreign cinema and was assembled by a foreign crew. There are few events to speak of and even less "action". Clooney and his limited supporting cast barely have any dialogue to recite. Director Anton Corbijn relies on the visuals to tell the story, set the mood and hint at character emotions. Everything from the establishing shots to the erotic moments take more than enough time to let its effect seep in. It's not a "less is more" approach because there is actually a lot to find here if you're observant enough.
I don't know why the Italian countryside was chosen for the setting but I do know that it works perfectly. The backdrop is ideally served for Jack's life of exile. It's small enough to avoid drawing attention and just active enough to blend into. The edge-of-your-seat moment for me was a late night foot chase through the streets. The area is walled in but the intersections have up to around eight branching paths which lead to seemingly infinite ways for the predator to surprise ambush his foe. It's so different than how an American studio would have handled the same scenario.
Clooney performs with masterful ambiguity. It's never perfectly clear what his current emotion is but there are always enough clues for an educated guess. Violante Placido's role as the new love interest is played much the same way where her allegiance remains questionable throughout her entire chapter. As lust-filled as their relationship can be at times, the mutual distrust prevents it from reaching the desired level.
As is the case with most foreign films, the ending is open-ended enough for the viewer to decide the characters' future. Those who have grown overly comfortable with mainstream American movies will undoubtedly groan at this practice. As a reasonably well-rounded film fan, I appreciated the screenwriter's trust in my ability to piece everything together as I saw fit. Sometimes the best stories don't need a definitive conclusion. Or as The American sets out to prove, sometimes nothing about a story needs to be that way.