The American had me from the moment I realized that the film was some unholy blend of James Bond and art-house cinema. Once again, expectations ruined this film as audiences went in expecting another Jason Bourne knockoff and instead got a lot of still artsy shots of George Clooney looking gruff and not saying much of anything. But seriously, who needs shaky camerawork and action set pieces when you can idyllically snipe sunflowers alongside a pond?
The originally named Jack (Geroge Clooney) finds himself in an awkward situation after his latest post-mission debriefing—with a lovely lady—ends in a brief shootout. Some group has sent assassins out to kill him, but you don’t assassinate an assassin. He makes a getaway to Italy and tells his boss he’s out, but not before he’s rooked into one last job.
If this sounds like a setup for a big action movie, it completely is. It’s just the action never comes anywhere near the tamest scenes in the modern action genre. The shootouts are far more subdued, sudden and brutally short. These people are the best of the best, and all it takes is one clear shot to finish the job. Most of the film is built around the suspense of those very few moments, the tension that ratchets up to the brief release.
The actual trappings around the plot remain deliberately unclear and unexplained. It’s never stated why anyone would want Jack dead or if there is any way Jack can stop the bad guys from hunting him down. There’s not a clear antagonist or a big conflict the film is building towards. It’s more about the tone and mood, embracing an art cinema approach to the narrative by simply following the psychology of Jack.
The overwhelming sense of isolation determines Jack’s behavior. He’d be smart to simply cast off all ties, but he needs something to ground him, something to stave off the loneliness tearing at him. This conflict is never stated, but Jack is often visually isolated in the frame and Clooney does a fantastic job at conveying the emptiness that pervades his life.
His job is the only connection he thinks he has left, the only way to get close to anyone. When the lovely and deadly Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) shows up, he’s able to stave off the feeling for a while. But it never progresses past the professional. Where he truly seeks companionship is in the arms of a hooker named Clara (Violante Placido). The two begin to forge a bond that goes beyond the bedroom and gives Jack a glimpse of a way out.
And while this still might sound a lot like just another average spy film, it isn’t. The film is built around sparse words and even sparser images. The camera lingers on every unsaid line, unspoken thought and unachieved action. It’s not a film that follows Jack’s story as much as it simply absorbs his life, emerges the audience into the long, empty stretches, punctuated by brief moments of action.
Most found this film dull, boring, overindulgent and tedious. Yet they miss the fact that this is a critique of the spy story that many find a thrilling and joyous form of escapism. This is not the devil may care existence of a fictionalized James Bond, but the existential crisis of a man caught in a web of secrecy that throttles his very soul. On that level, it’s one of the most gripping and engaging films of the year.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing