Before anybody reading this review goes to see "The American," let me give you some sincere advice. If you are expecting this to be another Jason Bourne or James Bond-style of movie with elaborate action sequences, tight pacing, and ear-throbbing music...you had better stay away, for you will be sorely disappointed. The advertising campaign and production photographs gives one the impression that George Clooney is taking on a role in a movie like Liam Neeson did in that marvelously powerful thriller "Taken" released in 2008. But that is not the case. "The American" is shot on a foreign location, features a lot of foreign dialect, and was made by a Dutch director with a mostly Italian cast. In other words, it's not really an American action production. It's an Italian melodrama and a really fascinating one at that.
Lots of questions are raised and very few of them are given answers (detailed ones, at least) in this incredibly affecting thriller. We know and find out very little about our protagonist (George Clooney) who goes by two names: Jack and Edward. All we know is that he's a trained killer, somebody wants him to manufacture a special rifle for an assassination, and that's about it. We don't find out who exactly he works for, and we really don't need to. Clooney is an American sent into an Italian town for a last assignment. While he is waiting for the right time, Clooney tries to avoid being shot at by assassins, and begins a relationship with a prostitute (Violante Placido) which slowly transforms from lust to love.
This is not really an action picture and to a certain extent, it's not even really a thriller. "The American" is a transfixing character study. We learn not about the George Clooney character's history, but his integrity as a human being, which it not very much. Director Anton Corbijn frequently has Clooney in a one-note personality and sets up his cameras at a combination of close-ups and medium shots that remain static as he performs rather mundane tasks as he waits for his assignment to come through. One would assume that this would produce tedium and boredom and for some people, it will be just that. But for me, and those who really get involved, this is rather fascinating and it doesn't drag on for very long at all.
However, the best scenes in the movie revolve around the relationship between George Clooney and Violante Placido, who is effective and charismatic as the prostitute who falls in love with him. The director sets up earlier scenes of them having sex and then later changes the direction to show them not as a pair of sex-starved individuals looking for a way to kill a boring night, but as two human beings who care for each other. At first, I was questioning the point of the Placido character and I was griping, as I usually do, about the sex scenes and how they seem, as usual, to have no purpose. But now in hindsight, I commend the filmmakers for their choice. The sex scenes, for once, are appropriate because they show how the relationship between these two characters evolves from lecherousness to a pure and affectionate love.
Director Anton Corbijn and cinematographer Martin Ruhe have done a superb job at crafting their nostalgia-stirring opus. The movie's misc en scene and lighting is absolutely wonderful. The film is great to look at as well as experience. There are some marvelous and more importantly, creative landscape and interior shots and it's almost a treat that the camera is frequently locked-down so we can admire these moments.
In regards to the performances, they are solid. George Clooney proves his worth as an actor yet again with his portrayal of this tormented, cynical man of few words. Violante Placido is also very effective as the girl. Thekla Reuton is icy and more than scenic in her performance as the in-between person working with Clooney. Paolo Bonacelli is compelling as the priest whom Clooney befriends, and Johan Leysen is chilling in his moments as the mysterious individual who always answer his phone with a gruff "Yeah?" "The American" is one of the best movies of the year. However, I cannot guarantee that many people will agree with my statement. First of all, because a lot going in will be misled that this is a high-tensity action picture like "The Bourne Identity" and when they find out it's not, they will leave the theater feeling vastly empty. So that's why I am giving you warning. Don't go in with that attitude. Go in with expectations for a fascinating, nostalgia-stirring character study and be especially keen as you watch the relationship between Clooney and Placindo transform. And believe me: scenes that seem pointless at first will seem ideal when you look back on it in hindsight.