‘The American’ movie review: George Clooney in European assassin thriller

A lot of people, I think, are going to leave Anton Corbijn’s The American unsatisfied; what’s all this symbolism and philosophy doing in my George Clooney thriller? Of course, when a movie is so blatantly about the symbolism and philosophy you have to adjust your expectations accordingly. I can really appreciate this kind of film. You may not.

Clooney is Jack, sometimes Edward, and occasionally, prophetically, Mr. Farfalle (that’s ‘butterfly’ for non-Italian speakers, or non-pasta connoisseurs). He’s an assassin – or is he? You wouldn’t know it going by what the film shows us, instead relying on general inference and a couple lines of vague dialogue to clue us in. 

Hiding out in a small Italian village after being ambushed by a pair of Swedish killers, Jack is working on the fabled ‘one last job’, which doesn’t involve murder but instead building a gun that he’ll read about later in the newspapers.

And that’s it. Outside of a few well-placed suspense scenes and a general ominous air, Jack drinks coffee, chats with the local priest, visits a prostitute, and builds the gun. If this were Mystery Science Theater 3000, Joel and the bots would be asking the screen: “is this a documentary about how to do whatever it is he’s doing?”

Instead, the entire movie exists in-between the lines: it’s about what Jack is thinking, the meaning of sparse lines of dialogue, the motivation behind his actions: things we cannot know for sure, but can infer if we pay close enough attention. 

On the surface, The American appears to be a thriller, and in three or four scenes it works as one (and works quite beautifully). But everything in-between is a dead zone that requires an investment into it; it’s not a complicated thriller that requires us to pay attention, but a delicate poem that rewards us if we do.

The cool-sparse style reminds me of one of my favorite films, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai. The difference is, you can watch that film and be plenty entertained and still not fully comprehend it. Melville takes advantage of something that Corbijn all but ignores in The American: you can have all the symbolism and vagueness that you want, but if you also have the appearance of a tangible story structure – even a B-movie one – you can engage all of your viewers while rewarding the patient ones. 

There’s an expectation of being entertained by a film like this, and while I enjoyed The American immensely, a part of me still longs for that expectation to be fulfilled. It can’t all be art, especially within the confines of contemporary mainstream cinema.

Clooney is that rare star who isn’t afraid to take chances; The American recalls his work in Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris remake, and the reactions have been similarly split. Here, he also features in one of the more memorably erotic, Last Tango in Paris-ish sex scenes in recent memory.

After Control, the stark, arresting portrait of Joy Division and lead singer Ian Curtis, Corbijn (formerly known for his work in music videos) has delivered another visually exciting and rewarding piece of cinema that couldn’t be more different in terms of story than his previous film. Cinematography by Martin Ruhe gorgeously captures the Italian locales; original music by Herbert Grönemeyer is used sparingly but effectively.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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