The American certainly isn't for everybody. Focus Features seems to be selling it as some kind of 1970's action thriller, when it's really more of a languid, slow-paced suspense drama. It's certainly the kind of avant-garde filmmaking that festival cineastes would love to pick apart and postulate on its non-action, but general audiences will probably be miffed by how much of the story is told under the surface.
George Clooney plays an assassin named Jack, who is sent to Italy after killing two men apparently trying to eliminate him in Sweden. His employer tasks him to lay low in a remote Italian mountain village, but Jack heads to a different town instead, clearly worried someone could find him. Once settled, he befriends a local priest and cavorts with a local hooker (Violante Placido).Then, his employer sends over a mysterious woman (Thekla Reuten), who needs Jack to build her a lightweight weapon. Soon after, shady figures start popping up and Jack starts to feel the pressure of being smoked out. And that's pretty much all of the plot I can divulge without giving too much away, suffice to say that there's not a whole lot left to talk about.
The movie is paced very slowly, almost meditative in its construction, concerned more with the style of its photography of the eerie and picturesque settings and quiet moments with the main character to be truly thrilling. The film doesn't need more plot, because, well, I suppose that's not what it's about.
The American is the kind of film that hipster cinephiles and film school snobs will applaud, if only for its defying of convention, and berate you for disliking. The fact of the matter is that there's little in the film's direction that actually allows you to connect with any of the characters, and as such, most audience members will leave feeling cold and numb. After all, we're talking about a movie that focuses on an assassin, a hooker, and the people trying to kill them.
Director Anton Corbijn, whose previous effort Control had a similarly bleak European tone, seems to go out of his way to be artistic and leave entertainment out of the equation. It's a bold thing to do in a market where big and stupid seem to dominate the airwaves, but it also doesn't make for the most gripping film, either. What we get is more intangible, something that's grasping at tones and emotions through images rather than conventional forms of storytelling. Usually, these techniques are icing on the cake, used to convey non-verbal information to supplement the main plot, but in The American, these things serve to drive the film.
And it's within this contemplative construct where most will get lost. It's easy to see Clooney's attraction to the project, as he is able to really flex his acting skills by portraying an internal struggle, all while remaining stone cold on the outside. In that regard, the acting is more than decent, but the nuanced complexities of Clooney's performance will probably be lost on most. What won't be lost is Violante Placido's frequent nudity.
But the slow burn does lead to a brief explosion of action, which won't satisfy anyone expecting Ocean's 11 or even North By Northwest, nor will it please the art critics hoping for the ultimate existential resolution to Jack's problems.
All in all, The American seems to be geared towards art house audiences, yet clearly marketed to the wrong crowd. This situation, along with the peculiar placement during Labor Day weekend, is setting up Clooney's latest vehicle to be a box office non-starter. It's not that it's bad, but more like, as they say, an acquired taste. It's just a shame that it's not as completely retro-cool as its flashy orange and white poster.