Style is a tricky thing. If a director lays on the atmosphere too thick, a film can unintentionally slide into self-parodic territory. Sober and slightly silly, Anton Corbijn’s The American resembles that remark.
For those making throwback, seventies-styled paranoid thrillers, it’s clear by now that George Clooney is the go-to guy. But one should have a good reason (and a good script) to go there, and the spare The American sets off ill-equipped. Based on Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, The American concerns Jack (or is it Edward?), an aging contract killer who finds out the hard way that he’s become a target.
Jack’s boss Pavel (Johan Leysen) instructs him to hide out in an Italian village and busy himself with his next job, custom-building a weapon for another assassin. Though Pavel warns him, “Don’t make any friends, Jack. You used to know that,” Jack succumbs to the unwelcome advances of prying Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), one of those movie priests who can just smell the sin on a man.
Then there are the women, the more mysterious, the better. Jack’s new client Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) likes his style, but Jack only has eyes for Clara (Violante Placido), the prostitute he’s been seeing exclusively in his off hours. And there you have it: see Jack run, see Jack build a custom rifle, see Jack bed a prostitute, see Jack suspect everyone. It’s tempting to call The American an “inaction movie,” but it does have one action sequence for each of its three acts (see inept people try to kill Jack).
There’s nothing wrong with a deliberate pace as long as we feel as if we’re getting somewhere for our investment of time. But The American is so spare as to be empty: what is here is simply laughable in its platitudinous portentousness. Jack is plagued by reminders that he’s an American (like “You’re an American. You think you can escape history”…snap!), which contrast to the annoying scene in which Once Upon a Time in the West plays on a bar TV. Quoth the bartender: “Sergio Leone—Italiano.” ‘Nuff said?
Of course, Jack lives by his own moral code, so it’s okay to feel for this killer. Should he get out for good, giving him more time to study butterflies? (I wish I was kidding.) Or is it too late: will the “endangered species” that is Jack go extinct? Can Jack get past his defining paranoia to accept redemptive love, or might that be his greatest mistake? Does anyone care?
Corbijn proved he had a good eye with Control, and he confirms it here, but the pretty, well-framed Italian settings (and Clooney's magnetism) only go so far. Despite the Leone reference, The American skews to the languors of Antonioni. So if it’s half-baked Italian modernism you’re after, you’ve come to the right place.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]