Sticky business, this killer-for-hire work. You can’t just quit and walk away scot-free from the job of an assassin, especially if you’re as experienced and secretive as Edward (George Clooney), a hit man so ruthless he’ll rub out anyone — even people he loves — in order to carry out his assignments without leaving a trace.
But even the most steely soldier is prone to loneliness and guilt. The American is yet another entry in the hit-man-with-a-conscience genre, the sort of film that became so ubiquitous after Pulp Fiction that Hollywood imposed an unofficial moratorium. But director Anton Corbijn, an acclaimed photographer and maker of music videos (this is his second film, after 2007’s Control), does something different — and compelling — with this shopworn material. He shapes Rowan Joffe’s screenplay, which is based on Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, into an absorbing, unusually quiet mood piece.
Clooney, enacting a variation on his wistful loner from Up in the Air, has got the inner-torture act down pat, but we’ve seen him play this sort of role before. The American is heavy on cliches, from the beautiful, gold-hearted prostitute (Violante Placido) with whom Edward falls in love to the wise old priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who is constantly spouting sage advice and observations (“You are American. You think you can escape history”).
But Corbijn makes the familiar strange, focusing on details other filmmakers would gloss over. There are long stretches of silence as we watch Edward assemble a high-powered sniper rifle out of spare auto parts or fill bullets with mercury to make them more deadly. Shot with subtle precision by cinematographer Martin Ruhe, The American finds suspense in small, seemingly meaningless moments, such as the pair of legs briefly glimpsed descending a staircase just before the camera cuts away or a picnic in which Edward believes his date is fishing around in her handbag for a gun with which to shoot him.
The American is slight and unessential, but it contains some beautiful, expert filmmaking and bears a distinctly adult sensibility — the first sign that the fall movie season approaches.
Cast: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli.
Director: Anton Corbijn.
Screenwriter: Rowan Joffe.
Producers: Anne Carrey, George Clooney, Jill Green.
A Focus Features release. Running time: 100 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, nudity, sexual situations, adult themes.