Review: The American

George Clooney gives a masterful performance in this slow-burning thriller.

George Clooney gives a masterful performance in this slow-burning thriller

George Clooney stars as a marooned hitman in The American. (Giles Keyte/Alliance Atlantis)

Sporting a bland title and George Clooney’s grave mug on its poster, The American promises to be a fairly traditional thriller.

This 1970s-style paranoia tale has inspired George Clooney to give his best performance to date.

The familiar genre elements are certainly in place at the outset. There’s the exotic location name (this time, Dalarna, Sweden) typed across the screen, the snowy landscape that’s soon disrupted by gunfire, and a grizzled protagonist who’s forced to run for his life.

When our man, Jack (Clooney), eventually hitches a train to Rome and makes a frantic call to his boss, Pavel (Johan Leysen), you’re primed for all sorts of globetrotting intrigue. But after Pavel cautions Jack to lie low in the sleepy Italian region of Abruzzo, The American switches gears and morphs into something wholly unexpected — a quiet character study that’s far closer in spirit to Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) than to the Bourne Identity (2002) retread the marketing suggests.

Jack is an inscrutable character at first, and the movie takes its time revealing him in still, often wordless scenes. After shaving off his beard and hunkering down in Abruzzo, he keeps to himself, reading, doing pushups and awaiting word from Pavel, who’s assigned him a job procuring and assembling a top-of-the-line rifle for a client named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). That Jack has some kind of prior experience brandishing deadly weapons becomes clear in the moments he springs bolt upright in bed, clutching his gun like a pro.

What little plot there is in The American arises when Jack ventures outside the confines of his room. Though Pavel has cautioned him, "Don’t talk to anyone and don’t make any friends," the insular hero finds himself making frequent visits to a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido) and sharing glasses of brandy with the local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli). Through his dealings with both characters, it gradually becomes clear that Jack, who’s taken to introducing himself as Edward, is longing to make a break from his criminal past.

Clooney and co-star Violante Placido in a scene from The American. (Giles Keyte/Alliance Atlantis)

Adapted by Rowan Joffe from Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, The American is far more concerned with the subtle shifts in Jack’s mood than with kinetic action. In one of Jack’s philosophical discussions with Father Benedetto, the priest notes, "You are American. You think you can escape history — you live for the present." Though the comment hints at Jack’s desire for redemption, it could also serve as a comment on North American moviegoers, who seem to only desire instant gratification.

The American refuses to offer up quick thrills, opting instead for the langorous pace and stunning visuals of European art-house fare. Director Anton Corbijn was a famed rock photographer before turning to filmmaking with his 2007 debut Control, and his flair for meticulously composed shots is on full display. Working with cinematographer Martin Ruhe, Corbijn views Jack through tight window panes and keeps the camera fixed on the back of his protagonist’s head as he navigates the narrow, cobblestone laneways and winding spiral stairwells of Abruzzo.

The claustrophobic images let on, long before the plot does, that Jack is a trapped man. In two wonderful set pieces — one in an eerily deserted coffee shop, the other during an intimate picnic on the banks of a river — Corbijn manages to create near-unbearable tension, using little more than silence and Clooney’s face. The director proves that watching a man sitting next to someone he probably shouldn’t trust is more than enough action to sustain viewers.

It helps, of course, that the loner in question is played by Clooney, an actor who gets more interesting with each performance. Naysayers will argue he keeps playing haunted guys in suits, and they’re not entirely wrong, but with each outing, he refines that character and goes a little deeper. What he comes up with in The American is something to marvel over.

Keeping his charming mannerisms fully in check, Clooney plays Jack like a cornered animal, one whose fear is palpable in every scene. There’s little dialogue to work with, and the actor uses his wiry frame, quick reflexes, observant eyes and short, laboured breaths to suggest a man who’s trying to outrun all of the demons he’s left behind.

The American confirms Anton Corbijn as a major talent, but it’s Clooney who keeps you watching. This 1970s-style paranoia tale has inspired him to give his best performance to date. Though The American steadfastly refuses to offer much in the way of gunfights or explosions, Clooney generates plenty of fire all on his own.

The American opens Sept. 1.

Lee Ferguson writes about the arts for CBC News.