With George Clooney, Johan Leysen, Paolo Bonacelli, Thekla Reuten and Violante Placido. Directed by Anton Corbjin. Rated R for violence, sexual content and nudity. 103 minutes.
Why is THE AMERICAN a taut, minimalist thriller starring George Clooney, being dumped just before Labor Day weekend? Part of the reason may be it’s too smart for its own good. Audiences craving no-brainer action films like “The Expendables” may not be up for a cool, cerebral film about a hired assassin.
The film opens with Clooney and a beautiful young woman at a remote cabin somewhere in Sweden. While enjoying a walk on a wintry morning, they are ambushed. That Clooney is the only left standing tells what you need to know about this character. We may not know his real name. We may not know which side he’s working for or who his targets are, but we do know this is a man who doesn’t like to leave loose ends.
He heads for Rome where his boss (Johan Leysen) sends him to another remote town, this one in Italy, to await further instructions. They come from Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) who wants him to custom build a rifle for a killing that will be carried out by others. Later when he delivers it he notes that he probably will be reading about its use in the newspapers, which is all the curiosity he expresses about the job.
That’s the real issue here. Can a man go through his whole life professionally detached from the rest of the world? His boss warns him that he’s not to have any friends, and yet in the town he gets close to the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), and makes a connection with Clara (Violante Placido), a prostitute, that turns into more than a business transaction. Is he getting soft? Is he becoming a loose end?
Although we find ourselves on the side of Clooney’s character, we don’t know much about him including his real name. He’s the “American” of the title, but does he work for the CIA? The Mafia? Some other group? Is he a freelance killer? How long has he been doing this and why? None of those questions get answered. Indeed, much of the film is in silence as Clooney walks through the streets, tracking someone or being tracked, or sits alone constructing a deadly weapon of unknown purpose.
That ambiguity plays right out to the end. The main conflicts are settled, but what is Clooney’s ultimate fate? The camera pulls away and leaves it for you to decide. This is an arthouse action movie. It’s got the shootings and the sex and the intrigue, but the idea is to leave you thinking, not experiencing an adrenaline rush. Clooney likes to taking chances on material like this, and that’s to his credit, but it’s not going to be for every taste.
Moviegoers should head into “The American” knowing what they in for: a movie with more questions than answers, and which requires viewers to think and observe, not just sit back and enjoy the hot guns and hotter women. The mystery is less why they’re releasing this now, than that Clooney got the movie made and released at all.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.