What makes “The American” work as a thriller is not what it shows, but what it leaves out.
There are no flashbacks and there is very little talk about the past. In fact, the first time we meet George Clooney’s character, we have no context at all. He’s at a cabin in the woods in snow-covered Sweden with a woman he loves. In an instant, everything changes.
There is barely a moment when Clooney is not on the screen, so personalized is our journey in this film, a throwback to the European art films of the 70s that netted big Hollywood stars like Marlon Brando (“Last Tango in Paris”) and Jack Nicholson (“The Passenger”).
Director Anton Corbijn is responsible for the slow, deliberate pacing of the movie. His background in photography certainly pays off as he frames each shot—most of them static—as meticulously as can be. With his eye for composition and Clooney’s somber introspective demeanor, it sometimes it feels as though the movie is actually a photo album shown in sequential order (much like the 1962 French short “La Jetée”).
Of course that is all part of Corbijn’s strategy, because when the tension builds and finally explodes, it’s a marked change.
Clooney is one of those rare actors who an audience will stick with through a routine. And that’s really what most of “The American” is. Jack—or whatever his real name is—holes up in a small Italian town with a cautious eye on his back. We are silent partners, watching every step of the way as a secretive deal is brokered and Jack goes about building a customized weapon. The minutae of how he aquires the parts and puts them together gets as much screen time as the elements that other films would find important. It’s as if we are embedded with Jack, experiencing the long hours of downtime he has for reflection.
He’s careful about attracting attention, but something in him craves companionship at the same time.
This comes in the form of a beautiful prostitute (Violante Placido) who is as lonely as Jack and a local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who hides some secrets of his own. The idea that Jack will be her ticket to a better life is about as original as the priest becoming unlikely confessor to a killer who knows better.
Luckily, this is partially helped by the fact that each of those clichés gets a slight spin in “The American,” but mostly the story’s more familiar beats are overruled by the film’s alternately meditative and taut narrative style.
Just from glancing at a plot summary of the 1990 book it’s based on, Martin Booth’s “A Very Private Gentlemen,” it’s pretty obvious that screenwriter Rowan Joffe pared the film down to its barest elements. There looks to be about 10 percent of the conflict and background of the source novel left in “The American.”
And that is precisely what makes it so interesting. Jack is aloof, choosing his words carefully and letting you guess at his inner monologue. Clooney is in top form. It is rare, if ever, that a smile even passes across his face, but everything you need to know is right there in his eyes.