The comparative whisper of Anton Corbijn’s “The American” heralds a spy-thriller set so far apart from its “Bourne” brethren that it barely qualifies as a thriller at all. Certainly not the kind that a mainstream audience, baited with an intentionally misleading trailer, had come to see. That it stars George Clooney, one of the most trusted faces in Hollywood, only rubs salt in the wound. But if you don’t have the patience for it, it’s your loss; “The American” is exactly the breed of careful, confident filmmaking that has become an endangered species in Hollywood.
Corbijn makes a bold commitment to his images in an age where the exploits of Jason Bourne and James Bond are obscured by a quivering camera and half-second cuts. Atmosphere is everything in this contemplative, introverted espionage film, and he lets each frame hang like a painting. In all, there is probably less than a combined ten minutes of hard action in “The American,” but the patient will be far from bored.
Based on the novel “A Very Private Gentleman” by Martin Booth, the plot ostensibly revolves around the construction of a custom rifle, which admittedly, is not the most exciting synopsis ever committed to paper. However, due in large part to Clooney’s subtle presence, and seen through Corbijn’s keen eye, even the methodic weapon-construction is riveting to watch. His character is further revealed through his relationship with two decidedly asimilar characters, a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and a prostitute (Violante Placido).
The performance isn’t especially nuanced or layered, but Clooney brings an effective solemnity to the title role. Besides his natural magnetism, he plays the character like Bond’s very antithesis: quiet, lonely, meticulous, paranoid, old. Clooney is refreshing in his absolute uncoolness. When his character is forced into action, we aren’t given the impression that he derives any enjoyment from what he does. He’s good at it, but his fear is evident when he’s pressed into a compromising situation. Self-preservation is constantly his top priority, and the exploration of his capacity for trust begets “The American’s” most suspenseful moments.
If there is a problem with the film, it’s that its propensity for understatement is played almost to a fault. It is, after all, ostensibly about the construction of a rifle. The plot is exceedingly simple, but somehow it feels all the smarter for its bare bones approach to the genre. By stripping away the layers of predictable and convoluted intrigue that pockmark most marginal capers, “The American” presents itself as something far closer to a character study, profiling a particularly solitary assassin.
The result is a compelling portrait of isolation, a theme that the title indirectly supports. The film takes place almost entirely in Abruzzo, where the nationality of Clooney’s character is his sole distinguishing feature. It is only through his bourgeoning relationships with two unlikely Italians that we come to better understand him. He is repeatedly subjected to the consequences of his past mistakes, and though he is far from the world’s most exciting action hero, Corbijn is clearly more concerned with empathy than entertainment.
And frankly, we don’t get enough of that. “The American” is a film appreciable probably only to a minority of filmgoers, and unless you’re deliberately in the market for a more downbeat “Bond,” my recommendation comes with an asterisk.
But those it ensnares will be quietly appreciative, and when the lights go up, the hum of the theater fan will sound deafening.