The American may be the most deceiving title of the year. Made by a Dutch director, set in Italy, and featuring loads of European sensuality paired with a very non-American sense of guilt over violence -- this is a film that would have been better off calling itself The UnAmerican. Or The Not Very American. Of course, none of this is a dealbreaker, and the film still could have added up to something substantial with the listed ingredients. It doesn't, but it could have.
George Clooney is an assassin. The film starts off with some momentum, with George taking on a bit of murdering, but then slows to a crawl before completely sputtering at the finish line. The initial conflict takes place in snowy Sweden; the gruesome suddenness indicating we could be in for a treat. The Swedes are after him! This is gonna be a Scandinavian bloodbath! Only it's not, even though they are. From there, storywise, we head off to nowhere. It's just one big sleep after that promise of potential.
After the killings Clooney is told to hide out by someone. Who tells him? Hard to say. He has a conversation with a gent who might be his boss, could be a friend or co-worker, perhaps he's a brother-in-law, whatever he is the fellow instructs him to head to Castlevecchio, Italy. Clooney kind of does that, heading instead to a village just up the road. We transition from Sweden to Italy, and George meets a lady of the night and awaits further instruction. Instructions come, albeit very slowly, and we are treated to much in the way of silent and pensive looks out into the evening. George meets a priest who wants to help him with his troubles (typical). Also, Clooney works out for few scenes, proving once again that he's a better man than almost everyone watching. He also begins to work on a weapon that he's providing to someone else. Yes, he's a diversified contract killer, assembling pitch perfect weaponry on the side.
Sadly, the film stalls mightily upon the two central tropes it rests so heavily upon: the dreaded hooker with a heart of gold paired with a killer who has finally found religion. Neither of these story arcs are compelling and both lack a certain dynamic quality given how far we've come with the archetypes. Way back in Pretty Woman Julia Roberts showed how to successfully transition from prostitute to love interest while hired killers have been going downhill since John Cusack gave us Martin Blank in Grosse Pointe Blank. Okay, both of those are romantic comedies, so perhaps that's not a fair comparison as these proceedings are definitely dramatic (and drip with "important" piano and string music throughout).
Why can't George just do something I found myself wishing and hoping as the movie played out. Surely, they don't expect us to think this lady of the evening is pure sugary goodness, a gal who has finally found true love with the dapper Mr. Clooney? But they do, verily they do. That's the bad news. Still, there is some good to be had here if you're willing to be patient. Director Anton Corbijn has a gifted visual eye, and many of the overly quiet scenes at least look impressive. Corbijn frames his shots extremely well, and if he ever gets a hold of a decent script great things could happen.
The American isn't the "tale of a killer" story we've been led to believe, if anything it's The Notebook with a few more deaths. We're subjected to a Clooney at a crossroads, a deliberate man, an extremely sympathetic monster. But he's not given anything to do, not given a sandbox to play in, and all those quiet scenes whisper so softly that they end up saying nothing at all.