A spy thriller for the European arthouse crowd, The American stars George Clooney as a brooding prep man who is hounded out of his reclusive Swedish hideaway and convinced to handle one last job in rural Italy. Anton Corbijn (Control, A Most Wanted Man) directs, and gives the film a quiet, minimalist feel, approaching an erstwhile straightforward plot with an arch aestheticism, doting on the Abruzzo landscape with sumptuous wide and aerial shots. Likewise, the star is restrained, eschewing his famous charisma in favour of subdued, paranoid nuance as the protagonist meticulously crafts a custom-designed sniper rifle for an Italian assassin and wrestles with a lifetime’s worth of guilt. Muted and mysterious, The American is very much a mood piece, and a very compelling one at that.
The promo poster for The American, featuring the isolated monochrome figure of Clooney's hitman - on the run, gun in hand - imposed on a burnt orange background of woman's face, evokes '70s cool via North By Northwest. The film's opening, crisply photographed by cinematographer Martin Ruhe - starting in a snowy alpine hideaway and segueing into a credits sequence featuring a silhouetted Clooney speeding through a motorway tunnel - more specifically locates us in Cold War era Bond territory.
And it might as well be set 30 years ago, as we watch Clooney's character, Jack, skip Sweden and hole up in a spectacularly mountainous backwater in Abruzzo. Jack is a man we know little 'about' at the beginning of the film, and learn barely anything more 'about' by the end. Time seems to have stopped in the labyrinthine, eerily beautiful streets of Castel del Monte; Jack even doesn't use a mobile to spoil the illusion, and the first person he encounters is the archetypal kindly priest, bent on figuring Jack out and fixing his eternal soul. Unsurprisingly, Jack politely but firmly refuses his shtick - "I don't think God's very interested in me, Father". He passes the time in between tailor-making a gun for his latest client - steely ice queen and fellow assassin, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) - broodily sipping coffee (always Americano, of course) and doing endless rounds of push-ups.
And yet, what's that we spy between his manly, musclebound shoulderblades? A butterfly tattoo? Why, he must be a softie underneath after all! Or at the very least, (since he lies awake at night reading about the pretty winged things) a keen lepidopterist. This rather leaden symbolism of Jack's inner emotional life gets channeled into his relationship with Clara (Violante Placido) - possibly celluloid history's most improbably gorgeous small-town prostitute, who it's hard to imagine would be hanging around in Abruzzo in this day and age when she could easily be making a mint on Berlusconi TV.
Aesthetic improbability aside, it's Jack's seamless shift from the ice cold killer of the film's prologue to hopelessly devoted lover that doesn't ring true - or that Rowan Joffe's tight-lipped script doesn't fully earn. As with Corbijn's debut feature, Ian Curtis biopic Control, our troubled hero is deliberately only viewed from a psychological distance. There are nice, subtle touches in the film which hint at the parallel life Jack could be living - when testing their firearms in a secluded woodland spot he and Mathilde fake a romantic picnic to cover their tracks, and she even mocks his exposed sentimentality over (yet) another butterfly encounter, nicknaming him "Signor Farfalla".
We've been here before with Jack Nicolson in Antonioni's The Passenger and Tony Servillo in Sorrentino's The Consequences of Love, and it's hard not to compare The American with these slow-burning masterpieces. Ultimately here, the shift in tone from glacial, Greenian existential void to full-throttle emotional climax doesn't convince, partly because of Clooney's casting - who, despite a dutifully gloomy performance, we're too familiar with as a sparkly-eyed, grinning Cary Grant type to ever fully buy as doomed lone wolf.
In a nutshell: Partway between icy existentialism and retro romantic thriller, The American wants to have its cake and eat it. And if it were a cake, it'd be a tastefully iced, elegantly crafted patisserie number with a disappointingly spongy interior.
By Sophie Ivan