There are moments in Anton Corbijn's moody thriller, while George Clooney in the title role is diligently working on a custom weapon, sound suppressor and special bullets for a fellow killer, when I couldn't help thinking that the new film could easily represent the fantasy life of the character Clooney played in Burn After Reading. That character was also involved in an obsessive assembly project, as some may recall, and shared something of the present Clooney's desperate longing for love. I don't bring this up to reproach Clooney or Corbijn; it's just the sort of association that can pop into your mind when you're watching a star vehicle. Clooney actually gives a very strong performance here, one that may go overlooked (though the film is apparently the box-office champ of a weak weekend) because he doesn't emote in any flamboyant or merely obvious way. He never needs to tell us how terribly lonely the American is; Corbijn allows him to show it instead.
The American is a killer or agent of some sort; the film is grimly abstract about whom he works for, whom he kills, and why. We know only what we see; he kills two men in Sweden who were apparently out to get him, and he has to kill a girlfriend who witnessed the fight and therefore knew too much. That won't do for him anymore, and for his handler the fact that he had a girlfriend to kill is a sign that the American is slipping, since he used to know that that was a no-no in his line of work.
Told to lay low and form no personal ties in a small Italian town, "Edward" poses as a photographer, befriends a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and patronizes a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido). But he's unable any more to keep sexual satisfaction on the level of a business relationship. He can't be anonymous and can't have anonymous sex. Meanwhile, he gets a job customizing the aforementioned weapon for the aforementioned killer, a cool female customer (Thekla Reuten), and has to fend off at least one vengeful Swede. The fact that he has to worry about "the Swedes" the way his kind usually have to worry about "the Russians" gives the story a hint of perhaps-unwanted absurdity, but there's no harm done, since the story has nothing to do with contemporary politics or crime -- we don't even know if he's a spy or a gangster. It doesn't matter, either. The American is a character study of a man who can no longer live with the isolation his lifestyle requires, grafted on the conventional genre story of the man who wants out when out usually means dead. The suspense builds as the American nears both an assignment deadline and his own personal breaking point, the moment when he must dare to break away from his old life even if that puts any hope of a new life in even more jeopardy than it already is from the Swedes.
Anton Corbijn is a Dutchman who has mostly made music videos. This is his second feature film, following Control, a Joy Division biopic that I haven't seen. He brings a Euro aesthetic to The American that has reminded some reviewers of the cool thrillers of Jean-Pierre Melville. That might be going a little far, but I get the point of the comparison. It's one way of saying that this film isn't an action movie, not (despite the title) an American-style spy or crime film. It's a patient film, one which may leave the wrong audiences feeling that little or nothing actually happened, while much does happen internally. Mood is the main objective, and Corbijn realizes his goal. He has wonderful locations at his disposal -- this film should have people wanting to walk the same streets Clooney does -- and a great cast of Euro actors in support. Considering that someone like Filippo Timi -- the young Mussolini in Marco Bellocchio's great Vincere -- is given only a small role as a mechanic, the cast may be overqualified across the board, but this is probably a crucial U.S. showcase for many of them. Thekla Reuten especially impressed me with an effortless menace as the other assassin, while Violante Placido is a convincing romantic interest who helps firm up the movie's R-rating credentials. But this is George Clooney's show (he produced it), and it's fresh proof of his star-power to see what he can express with a relative minimum of dialogue and even less exposition to give him a context. When he's on his game, Clooney is one actor from our generation who stands comparison with the classics, and here he's on his game.
Nevertheless, I left the film grumbling. I still like the movie and I'm recommending it here, but at the very end Corbijn took the butterfly motif he'd been playing with all along just a little too far. I wasn't sure exactly where he was going with it, but Clooney did have a butterfly tattooed on his back and read lepidoptery books casually, and two different women called him "Mister Butterfly," and we do hear some of Madame Butterfly playing when he visits the priest. Well? Are we to equate the lonely killer with the little flying creature or the character from the opera, or is he a little of both? I don't think the answer decides the quality of the movie, but while the whole butterfly business struck me as superfluous pretension, other viewers may think differently. Any disagreement on that point shouldn't distract us from giving The American the credit it's due as a fine film to informally kick off the fall movie season.