Crisp, compact and cryptic, The American is a standard-issue hit-man thriller, tailor-made for George Clooney. Filmed not too far from the Kentucky native's Italian home, anchored firmly to his performance and his star presence, it works its way past "formula" by the manner in which it builds its suspense.
The film, which opens Wednesday and is directed by Anton Corbijn (Control), makes brilliant use of its rural Italian silences and its gun-barrel silencers. Its quiet is its most unnerving ingredient.
We meet Jack (Clooney) in snowy Sweden, sharing a rustic idyll with a tall, thin lady friend. Within moments, shots ring out and there's blood on the snow. And Jack is on the run.
As a character (from a novel by Martin Booth), Jack is a man of few words. He is proficient, but not Jason Bourne superhuman. He knows his trade and in odd, private moments, he betrays the way it has made him paranoid, given him a lifetime of guilt. When he lies low in Italy, his control agent (Johan Leysen) sends him off to the boondocks with a warning: "Don't make any friends, Jack. You used to know that."
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Their terse exchanges give away no warmth, little history and almost no trust.
Jack poses as a photographer, covers his tracks and keeps his guard when, as the guy the townsfolk quickly call "the American," he is sought out by a chatty, elderly priest (Paolo Bonacelli). But don't expect any confessions here.
Clooney carries this with little dialogue. The camera often sits on his shoulder and follows him through the empty streets. He's alert, and this manner of movie-making makes us alert, too. We expect violence — noisy jolts. So does he. We become as jumpy as Jack must be.
He is a man, though, and he has to eat, after sizing up the waiter or the couple at the next table. He joylessly enjoys the pleasures of a lovely local prostitute (Violante Placido). And despite his best efforts to blend in, we know trouble is going to come looking for him.
It sometimes seems that the movies are overrun with hit men. The standard way of portraying them is to depict people who feel little, collect their cash, do their dirty work and try to get out with that "one last job." There's a bit of that sort of melodrama in The American. Clooney's moments suggesting that Jack has regrets and fears are interesting, but the film is very much caught up in the effort it takes to be "off the grid."
But that lack of humor and switched-off humanity reminds you that anybody who looked like Clooney, with an American accent and an evasive answer to his means of support, would stand out a lot more in a town where "accidents" happen than this American seems to.