Movie Review: The American

by Eric Melin on September 1, 2010

in Print Reviews

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”).

the_american_2010_clooneyDirector 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.

the-american-Violante-PlacidoThis 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.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Vaughn September 2, 2010 at 2:01 am

I was really surprised by this one. The understated dialogue really sold it for me, like when Clara was being coy about their meeting spot so as to not let the cat out of the bag about her occupation in front of her friend. That’s a brand of clever I don’t see in many Hollywood films.


2 WTB September 6, 2010 at 8:09 pm

I just saw The American. Probably one of the worst movies I have ever seen. The American is awful. Nonsensical, stupid and vapid.


3 GP September 7, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Saw The American over the weekend. What a waste of time and money! It was boring … almost went to sleep several times!
My advice … don’t waste your money!


4 Eric Melin September 7, 2010 at 5:09 pm

Vaughn- Clooney’s a man of few carefully chosen words for sure in this film. Some of the stuff with the priest got a little corny, but I thought his relationship with Clara was fully realized–good observation!

WTB- What was vapid about it?

GP – It certainly has a slow pace, but that’s part of its charm. When you get that involved in the minutae of a person’s life, you begin to understand what its like to be that person, and that’s what Corbijn accomplished in this movie. Granted , it’s slow, but that was refreshing for me. I’m used to getting hit over the head with movies every week.


5 Alisha September 16, 2010 at 11:14 am

I thought the pace of the movie accurately represented the detchment and solitude in which Jack’s lifestyle demanded. He lived a very lonely life and longed for human and social contact. When living in near solitude, time may feel as though it is moving more slowly, dragging even. I felt an understanding for why Jack made the decision he did about his work…why he wanted a differnt life for himself. I liked the characters, liked the movie. Didn’t anyone else find George Clooney’s character similar to that which he played in Up in the Air?


6 ViewerCanuk September 18, 2010 at 10:27 am

Liked the film. It was a welcome relief after watching “DeathWish Week” on TV. You got to be with the protagonist as he went through the details of his next job and his daily life in beautiful Abruzzi.

I did not really understand why he killed the woman in Sweden, or just who killed the beautiful assassin in Abruzzi. Anyone care to tell me.

If you want Death Wish action don’t see it. If you like Hud then maybe you will like this one.


7 Kriss Mockery September 18, 2010 at 11:47 pm

Yeah, so I just watched this. If I’m being merciful, I’ll say it was okay. It certainly wasn’t horrible. The cinematography was interesting.

And yes, Eric, the strength is in what it doesn’t show rather than what it does. But on the whole, I think it was lackluster and annoyingly predictable.

I think I have somewhat of a grasp on what they were trying to do here, but something was missing. And I know some will retort, “It is supposed to be missing.” Yeah, yeah, yeah.

I didn’t expect Clooney to be Jason Bourne or anything, but an eerie feeling with beautiful people a film does not make – even if one does have a “man crush” on Booker Brooks.


8 Eric Melin September 19, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Alisha- Clooney’s choosing his roles smartly and I think both this and “Up in the Air” have a lots in common in his character where they both reach a point in their life where they realize what they thought was a good way to live is no longer functional–good point!

ViewerCanuk- The assassin in Abruzzi was killed because Clooney’s character set the rifle to backfire after he sensed thathis bosss had taken out a hit on him. It was insurance and it showed how serious he was about changing his life. He killed the girl in Sweden because at that point he was exposed and she would have been collateral damage anyway.

Chris- Merciful? really? You have no tolerance for slow, detailed meditative films? Hmm…it was a breath of fresh air if you ask me. And when a film has less twists and turns and more time to spend with the characters, I thin it gives us a way deeper understanding of what life is like in their shoes.


9 Vaughn September 19, 2010 at 7:22 pm

Eric- I think you are mistaken about the first girlfriend, the one in Sweden. At first I thought it would be hard to identify with Clooney being a total a-hole, but when he started considering whether or not to shoot Clara, it was then I realized that he killed the first woman because she sold him out. That’s why when the Swedes talk to Clara he’s in angst over what do with her. The first girl set him up, and the nod is in how they went for the hike in the snow and she brushes off the tracks by suggesting it’s nothing but hunters.


10 Eric Melin September 19, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Vaughn- You are so right. Good call. A moment almost as subtle as the one where he later decides that the markswoman he sold the rifle to would try to kill him. A movie full of little details; you’re just helping prove the point that this is a pretty great film!


11 Reed February 23, 2015 at 2:10 am

A near miss for me, and that was wholly because they went, quite unnecessarily, to a 3rd person omniscient view near the end of the film. All we needed to raise suspicion was Pavel’s “You’re out.” Then the filmmakers tell us far too much either because they think we’re not smart enough or because they foolishly thought it would raise the tension. It does quite the opposite and bends the movie back to the cliches it had worked so hard to avoid earlier.

There are many good moments that I keep going back to. Then I remember this error and can’t give it higher than a Minor Rick Fist Up ©.


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