It requires careful skill to be an assassin: exemplary marksmanship, precision in movement, and certainty in intention. The same can be said of successful filmmaking, and even of convincing performance. It’s a good thing, then, that Focus Features’ The American, a meticulously crafted, retro-styled exercise in vigilance and meditation, subsists on those who embody these very qualities: the titularly-described agent named Jack, George Clooney in his portrayal of Jack, and director Anton Corbijn in his scrupulous manipulation of the medium.
When perfection is the order of the day, however, the slightest of stumbles can cause the farthest of falls. For Jack, a botched assignment in the snowy peaks of Sweden forces him to relocate and recalibrate in the cobblestone streets of a small Italian village. His latest task has him constructing a custom-ordered weapon for a fellow emissary, but Jack remains shaken—ever wary that his requisite anonymity may once again unravel.
It’s this constant suspicion, winding uneasily through narrow alleyways, lingering amidst the chilly air, that gives The American its most effective urgency. This is not a spy thriller in the classic Hollywood sense; the film’s technique is overtly European: patient, mindful, and coolly reserved. Artful observations outrank larger swipes of suspense.
That’s not to say the film contains a deficit in feeling. Just as Corbijn (working with cinematographer Martin Ruhe) nary lets a frame pass without expressing aesthetic intent—the results of which create moods and textures of their own, mysterious and beautiful alike—he allows his performers to emote through their physical forms. The lithesome Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) is a porcelain vision as she stands along train tracks, but she also aches, as though her still and silent figure whispers with worry.
She is supposed to be working with Jack (it is for her operation that Jack is assembling a specialized rifle), though it barely takes an exchange of glances before she feels compelled to flirt. But Mathilde does not ultimately capture a wandering eye from Jack. That honor belongs to the sensuous Clara (Violante Placido), whose services Jack initially enlists to satisfy his carnal compulsions. Those sorts of things we have long accepted to be insuppressible, but it would seem that the longings of the heart are just as essential.
Even for a spy, human nature is an impenetrable force. We are driven to love, to find love, and to make human connections. To neglect these personal interests, these simple requirements of the human condition, is to play a dangerous and difficult game—and yet to do just that is of the utmost importance for this particular American. Naturally, the struggle for Jack, between the stipulations of working and living, is constant and taxing.
It must be especially taxing for Mr. Clooney, who now presents with a trifecta of characters whose professional lives demanded emotional detachment: previously, as the titled all-star attorney in Michael Clayton, and last year as flyover firer-for-hire Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air. If the collateral damage has increased with each endeavor (human lives are literally at stake here), so has the sheer irresistibility of Clooney’s filmic persona. It’s a bit out of control, in fact, in The American: women don’t stand a chance around Jack (the clothes seem to melt away from their bodies), and men are sure to curse his impressive brawn. It doesn’t help that Corbijn’s directorial gaze is solidly hetero-masculine; the female form is a fetish and very little else.
Still, and despite his deific stature in the eyes of the film, Jack’s obligations to his job, the lifestyle requirements of an assassin, leave him mentally displaced and personally unfulfilled. That much is certainly an American dilemma. And as the film crawls toward its climax (after several of them caused by Mr. Clooney himself), it nearly concludes as a hazy interpretation of American paranoia, and how our inclination to distrust might prevent us from connecting with others.
But Corbijn appears to swivel his focus onto spy genre thrills—periodically throughout the film, and in a big way during its final act. This may invigorate a leisurely tempo, but it also creates a disconnect, reaffirming the very paranoia it purports to dissect. The film remains sharp and studied, though—even with the occasional wobble—before a stunning conclusion that ekes out a moment of performance gusto from Mr. Clooney, and serves as fair warning to those who wager on a life incognito.
Directed by Anton Corbijn. Written by Rowan Joffe, based on the novel ‘A Very Private Gentleman’ by Martin Booth.
Rated R: Quiet violence, loud sex, and lots of nudity
Runtime is 1 hour, 45 minutes.