The American may be indebted to the existential crime cinema of one Jean-Pierre Melville, but it also owes a great deal to Sergio Leone, and I don't think director Anton Corbijn (who directed the great Joy Division biopic Control) is shy about the fact that even though he's trying to make an existential thriller, he's also making a Leone-esque western that takes an oblique approach to telling its classic story about a protagonist who says more with his eyes than with words. As Herbert Grönemeyer's score guides the viewer through the action of the un-action, I couldn't help but think of last year's fantastic, and similarly deliberately paced "thriller," The Limits of Control. Both films require the viewer to be patient with their hired-killer tropes as the film washes over the viewer instead of attacks them with a barrage of phony action scenes and quick cuts. Apropos to how we feel watching this film, the opening shot, a slow push-in, invites us to ease into this meditative world where ambiguity should not be misconstrued as laziness. There are problems with the film's script (written by Rowan Joffe who penned 28 Weeks Later, the better of the two infected films), yes, but I think they're only pressing if you go into The American expecting another hyperactive spy thriller a la the Bourne films (and, man, how boring would that have been).
The American is very deliberate, yes, but it is never boring. There are obvious comparisons to be made between Alain Delon and Melville's Le Samourai, but I like what Jason Bellamy says when he likens it more to a Steve McQueen film (read his thoughts on this connection; they're fantastic). The performance by Clooney is appropriately terse and mysterious (he does a great way of showing that there's always something go on behind the eyes of Jack/Edward; he's always trying to figure something out). The performance is very star-y, too .What I mean by that is: this is a movie star we're watching. Everything about Clooney in this role exudes cool and sexy (the image of him walking off a train with shades shows how much of a star Clooney is, again, to invoke Jason's comparison, very McQueen-esque) while he assembles weapons to sell to people who are going to use them for bad things. Throw in beautiful women – one of whom, the extremely beautiful Violante Placido, spends most of the time nude – and exotic locations and you have full-fledged throw back to the types of American thrillers made in the 70's. These are the kind of thrillers where American filmmakers, heavily influenced by European cinema, explicated more existential themes isolation and making sense of a modern world.
The American has these aspirations (and how!) by being brilliantly blatant; it's heavy-handed with its themes but never overbearing. What I mean is this: the film is about Jack/Edward (Clooney) and his job and lack of human connection, sure, but it's also about his character trying to find where he fits. He is also called Mr. Butterfly, a name that makes more sense when you see the film and one of its favorite motifs, and much like the endangered insects he claims to be photographing while on his trip to Rome, Jack/Edward is becoming endangered. There aren't too many people like him, and now is the time for him to break free from his profession and make some sense of things. The vibe of the film didn't feel faux-European to me (the on-location filming – as much a star of the film as its big movie star much like the city of Bruges was the star of In Bruges – which was always awesome and beautiful to look at helped) because I was so hypnotized by the film's aesthetic. I didn't care if The American took itself too seriously; I was just glad that it wasn't another Bourne-type movie.
Now, this doesn't sound like anything new, but it's in the execution and the mise-en-scene where this film excels. The film makes it a point to film Jack/Edward in a way that it's clear how isolated, pushed to the side he feels. Clooney is almost always shot in a medium or long shot (or shot from behind with follow-shots) and placed to one side of the frame or the other; there's special attention being paid here to the peripheries, too, as if we, like Jack/Edward, always have to look over our shoulder or to see what's going on. When the film does employ close-ups, it's in a very Melvilleian way in which it's almost as if we're inside the character's head. The framing and deliberate aesthetic and musical score are perfect examples of how the tone of a film can totally render a screenplay's flaws moot. When held to a microscope, The American's plot doesn't really hold up. But who cares? The film isn't about plot. Just like Le Circle Rouge wasn't necessarily about a heist or Le Samourai about a hitman killing people, so too is The American about so much more than a "will-he-won't-he-get-out" type spy thriller.
Am I overrating the film? Perhaps. But I love it when movies take their time to tell their story. I love it when every piece of context doesn't have to be spelled out. The pacing of the film allows for us moments where we can figure out for ourselves who Jack/Edward works for, why he does what he does, and why he's becoming disillusioned with the whole enterprise. There's a great moment near the end when someone enters a building, and we know someone is going to die, but the film cuts back to another scene – a nice moment between two characters – and then cuts back to the person ascending a flight of stairs while a dead body lies at the foot of those stairs. It's a small thing (like that slow push-in to open the film, or the fantastic framing of Clooney in a coffee house where we're watching a car outside instead of the movie star inside), but it's something that is usually taken for granted in movies. It shows not just the art of cutting, but it also shows the art of restraint. I loved everything about this movie; it's one of my favorites of 2010.