It’s easy to write about a film like The American. There are no tangled subplots or complicated espionage linked back story, no clutter at all really. You don’t have to spend a lot of time on plot or character development, George Clooney does this for you effortlessly as the camera loves him whether he his hiking a mountain trail, driving a car, or making love to a beautiful Italian prostitute in some remote part of the world you most likely haven’t been to or will. There really is no plot, well maybe a thin veneer of plot that skitters unsupported beneath the sketchy outline of a tired assassin with varying names and monikers. This assassin, lets call him Jack with a butterfly tattoo between his shoulder blades, is on a mission; only in place of the usual trappings he finds the meaning of life, or at least a sign post up ahead that suggests a chance to, and decides to perform one last “job” and then be done with it. It’s of little consequence that his choice of mate is a working girl or where his money will come from after a life of crime. I don’t think it is of much consequence. No need to perform a plot point analysis either; what you’re given is 105 minutes of beautifully photographed dawdling in the mountains of Eastern Rome that might as easily be a postcard or a snap shot in the album of an everyday American family on vacation – if not for the high-powered rifle and a few moments of gun play that is. This film moves so slowly at times that you can literally leave the room, pour yourself a glass of wine and select a piece of chocolate and return without having had missed a thing. Whatever you missed was extraneous anyway; Clooney driving a car, Clooney assembling a weapon from meticulously packaged materials, Clooney with a beautiful girl who amounts to Clooney in bed with said girl on more than one occasion.
It’s not that The American is a bad film. It’s not a film that you should miss, nor is it one that you should particularly run out to watch. What it is might not be at all what others have complained about – an action film wrapped in the faux sheep’s clothing of a character study. Yet in typical George Clooney fashion, it has its charms so don’t be fooled. Anton Corbign (Control), perhaps better known for his video documentaries, operates coolly and painterly with a script by Rowan Joffe (28 Weeks Later) who adapted the 2005 novel “A Very Private Gentleman” by Martin Booth. Joffe takes some liberties with the material, for better or worse; there is no mention of Clooney’s character as Signor Farfalla (Mr. Butterfly) though the translation is presented when by happenstance an encounter with a butterfly occurs in the film signaling, perhaps, the moment of transformation when the gun for hire seeks redemption. This gentleman doesn’t paint rare butterflies, as he does in the novel either; instead he builds custom weapons with the sole purpose of long distance executions ala Lee Harvey from the sixth floor of the book depository. Clooney is marvelous in just the right light, silent except for the sounds of his own calculated maneuverings of a place he’s never been before yet resembles jobs he’s forgotten Ad infinitum, the way he utters Italian with just the right amount of authenticity that you actually believe him when asked if he knows how to speak the language; poco he says. Clooney changes the climate of every film or television project he has ever worked on, there is something about his devilishly good looks that he is both aware of and purposefully distances himself from, contemplation a weighted mask of expression though familiar is a bankable trait he is very comfortable with.
While you can almost see the end coming or very near to it, the plot consists of no more than a very long road upon which Clooney drives, stops along the way, and ultimately never really arrives anywhere. He doesn’t know he’s on the road of redemption. He’s on the job as he has been for some time but somehow in the quant little town of Abruzzo where a whore named Clara provides the pleasure, not the other way around, he discovers deep down that he wants to finally and fully give pleasure back again. Perhaps Corbign intended to visualize a lengthy, cerebral prose poem of carefully chosen words scattered like breadcrumbs on a road in the middle of nowhere people actually go or leave from, and while the movie plods along various birds and beetles arrive, eat the important bits of bread, the parts needed for the prose poem to make sense, and what we the audience is left with is a matter of befuddlement and the joy of passing of time. That might just be the best description of all for The American; a measurement of time passing where a few people run into one another for a little while and then they don’t.
I can’t say that I dislike this film. Dislike seems like such an investment, such an expenditure of emotions as if to suggest I traveled somewhere with fully realized characters inside the framework of a fully realized story I cared about. I can not say that I like this film either for that would suggest that I feel the time, the investment, I made was well spent when in all actuality I would have preferred to have spent those 105 minutes being productive, watching the wild turkeys cross the street down a ways from the front of my house, or catch the black birds dangling just above the guide wire of my neighbor’s house where box vans and compact trucks pass closer and closer to their crooked toes each day.
The American will appeal to a handful of people. It will appeal to the art crowd who prefer the smallest, most refined espresso in tiny cups with tiny ringlet-like handles you can barely hold. It will appeal to people who prefer to wade into a film chest high, become a little buoyant and off-balance, the threat of going too far ever-present as much as returning to the shoreline. The American reminds one that films are first ideas, they are thoughts and patterns like the glow from a porch lamp in the distance that comes on and goes off every day for a year and then it doesn’t any more and no one seems to notice. Not even the owner.