An actor with less going on behind his eyes than George Clooney might have sunk The American, Anton Corbijn’s slow, sometimes flat meditation on loneliness via the story of an American assassin in Europe. Clooney’s main character, possibly named Jack or Edward, doesn’t say much, whether he’s mercilessly dispatching men sent to kill him or romancing a prostitute (Violante Placido) he meets while laying low in a small Italian town. A lesser actor might have made Jack into a boring cipher, so unknowable that it’s impossible to care about what happens to him. But Clooney conveys the full weight of Jack’s isolation and melancholy with every look, his visual acting a nice complement to Corbijn’s glossy filmmaking style.
Corbijn, a veteran rock photographer and music video director who made his feature debut in 2007 with the Ian Curtis biopic Control, knows how to compose striking images, and he gets plenty of opportunities to do so with his out-of-the-way European settings. Exactly what is behind Jack’s falling-out with his boss or disillusionment with his chosen profession is never quite clear, but the mood that Corbijn creates gives enough of a sense of disquiet and disconnection to draw us into Jack’s troubled mindset. Likewise, the romance between Jack and prostitute Clara is more a series of moments than a fully realized love story, but those moments are sensuous enough to grasp the connection between the two.
The American eventually wraps up in a fairly predictable way, as Jack only has four known associates (his boss; a kindly priest who offers pointed homilies; Clara the prostitute; and a mysterious new client), and the only real suspense comes from trying to guess which one will betray him. But The American isn’t about plot twists or car chases or shoot-outs, even though it features all of those elements in some fashion. It’s about that haunted look on Clooney’s face, or the way the worn steps of the Italian village evoke painful solitude, or the intensity of Jack and Clara’s lovemaking under warm red lights. Those small pieces may seem slight, but they add up to a satisfying whole.