Son #2 and I saw “The American” in a theater that was ¾ full, and I’d be willing to bet that ¾ of those people walked out unhappy, or at least wondering what the hell they’d just seen. A couple on a date (or so it seemed) had even walked out, about 20 minutes before the film was over.
The biggest clue to what director Anton Corbijn was trying to achieve with “The American” comes in a scene that takes place in a small Italian bar. Clooney is sitting at a small table, waiting to be served, and the memorable strains of Ennio Morricone can be heard on the soundtrack. The camera pulls back to reveal, playing on the flat screen TV, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western masterpiece, “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Anyone who’s seen that movie knows that for long stretches, the dialogue often plays second fiddle to the visual story that’s being told on the screen. And that’s what “The American” feels like. There are no quick cuts in this movie, no “Bourne” style action set-pieces.
After an opening scene in Sweden that establishes Clooney’s assassin as someone whose morals play a back seat to his instinct for survival, the movie unfolds slowly but surely – Jack/Edward takes refuge in a small, somewhat claustrophobic Italian village, a village where the pathways are narrow and you never know who might be hiding behind the corner. It’s clear that Jack/Edward wants out of the life, and a comment by his handler leads one to believe that, as a good as he is at his craft, he’s past his prime. “You’ve lost your edge,” Pavel even says at one point.
It probably sounds strange to refer to what Jack/Edward does as a “craft,” but as portrayed in the film, he is a master craftsman. The assignment he’s been given is to construct a weapon to very exacting specifications, and to watch him build the rifle is to watch a master craftsman, even an artist, at work. To make the rifle takes time, and during that time Jack/Edward has time to absorb his surroundings, and learn a little bit about the people who live in the village. He is befriended by a priest with secrets of his own, secrets that Jack/Edward is able to discern simply because of his trained assassin’s eye. He meets and begins to fall in love with a prostitute (played by Violante Placido, the daughter of the actress who played Apollonia in “The Godfather”), who is wise beyond her years and who just might be his salvation. He meets the woman for whom he is building the weapon, and their dialogue is filled with wit and tension. It’s clear that she is just as deadly as Jack/Edward himself, and part of what makes the movie successful is that you never quite know if she’s going to lean over and kiss him, or pull out a gun and shoot him in the temple.
I’ve always had a weakness for stories about assassins. I think that may mean that I have a fatalistic streak, because when you think of the great assassin stories – “The Day of the Jackal” comes to mind – you sort of have a feeling how they’re going to end (especially in those instances where the target is a well-known figure of the past who didn’t become the victim of an assassin’s bullet). I always end up rooting for the assassin, and I’m usually disappointed (the only example I can think of where that didn’t turn out to be the case was Thomas Perry’s great book “The Butcher’s Boy”). When I was in high school, I even wrote a short story about one – he was hired to assassinate the President of the United States, and at the end, he went through a crisis of conscience, and took his own life instead. So not even I could allow my "hero" to get away with it.
The tension in “The American” comes from its slow, steady pace. Because as the story unfolds, you find out that Jack/Edward is human, and capable of human emotions. And that isn’t necessarily a good thing for an assassin. So in the end, I thought it was outstanding – a lot of things that you don’t normally see in a summer movie (things like the old, leathery faces of the supporting actors).
For an audience expecting explosions and jump-cuts every two minutes, “The American” will indeed be a disappointment. But for those with the patience to let the film wash over you, “The American” is well worth the effort.
BONUS: Read the great Sheila O'Malley's thoughts about the film here. As usual, she nails it.