"The American" is an exercise in style and withheld sentiment, a bleak and atmospheric art-house thriller that's more of an aesthetic experience than an emotional one. If Robert Bresson, the austere French minimalist, had directed a James Bond film, it might have turned out like this.
Though Bresson favored nonprofessional actors, director Anton Corbijn has secured George Clooney to play the title role of a top-of-the-line professional assassin. But it's a very different, more removed Clooney than audiences are used to seeing.
Playing Jack, a hit man on high alert who is facing a crisis in his life, Clooney is all but unreachable behind his dark glasses. It's a much more interior performance than usual, a dark, withdrawn role that completely avoids the actor's usual high-wattage smile and suave good humor.
Echoing U.K.-based Corbijn's first feature, "Control," the director's new film is impeccably composed and beautifully shot (by cinematographer Martin Ruhe). An accomplished photographer before he turned to directing, Corbijn has seen to it that each one of his frames is masterfully put together.
But while this exceptionally high level of craft is always satisfying, it can involve us emotionally for only so long. Though "The American" echoes classics of the genre like Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Samourai," Corbijn's proclivity for holding everything at a remove combined with schematic tendencies in the script stops us from caring about this film as much as it cares about itself.
Given these structural drawbacks, Clooney initially does fairly well. Even when it is intentionally dimmed, star power is always a plus for an actor looking to connect with an audience, and Clooney starts out convincing as the laconic Jack, someone who dislikes wasting either words or bullets.
An American who works in Europe, Jack is introduced unwinding a bit in snowy Sweden. But if you are a big deal killing machine, your life will not stay tranquil for long. You are safe nowhere and neither are your associates. With people expiring left and right, Jack retreats to Italy, where he assumes the cover of a nature photographer and hangs out awaiting instructions in the tiny Italian hill town of Castel del Monte in the Abruzzo region.
Perhaps because he's bored, perhaps because it's mandated by the script (written by Rowan Joffe and based on a novel by Martin Booth), Jack gets implausibly chatty with the local priest, Father Benedetto.
Played by veteran Italian actor Paolo Bonacelli, who bears a disconcerting resemblance to Rodney Dangerfield, Father Benedetto is not a fascinating conversationalist, and lines like "a man can be rich if he has God in his heart" play as unconvincing as they sound.
Just when you can't abide another homily, Jack gets an assignment, and it's a pip. He doesn't have to kill anybody, he simply has to construct a high-quality weapon for another assassin, a mysterious woman named Mathilde ( Thekla Reuten).
Jack is someone who takes this kind of work very seriously ("I do what I'm good at" is as close as he gets to self-analysis) and watching him utilize his expertise and expend time and care on the job provides unexpected satisfaction.
Also involving, for different reasons, is Jack's steamy liaison with the gorgeous Clara. She's the latest in the long line of stunningly beautiful movieland women who just happen to be working as prostitutes in out-of-the-way bordellos. Who knew?
Nicely played by Violante Placido (whose mother, the actress Simonetta Stefanelli, played Michael Corleone's ill-fated Italian wife in "The Godfather"), Clara's presence brings some life to both Jack's existence and the movie as a whole, but don't get your hopes up.
For while many of its elements whet our appetite and make the film well worth seeing, "The American" doesn't manage to deliver a fully satisfying meal. It's against the film's religion to have us believe too deeply in its characters, and that agnosticism, combined with the plot's sense of predestination, put a noticeable crimp in its grand ambitions.