George Clooneys charisma and powerful screen presence have never been more integral to a film, nor used in a more futile effort, than in THE AMERICAN, a virtually silent opus that trades on Clooneys unassailable ability to seduce the camera. Based on Martin Booths novel, A Very Private Gentleman, it is less a action thriller than a visual paean to Clooneys ability to look so good while never being permitted to smile.
Clooneys character, Jack or Edward, depending on who he is with, is an assassin-for-hire that is also a whiz at designing and building small arms to tricky specifications. who becomes the an assassins target. It may have something to do with the chilly bloodbath in Sweden that starts the film where Jack or Edwards special friend is killed. Such details are not the purview of this opus. The point is to have Clooney, demonstrating his range of understated facial expressions, punctuated with far too few scenes of him rigorously doing push-ups and pull-ups in order to kill time until and to stay ready for the next assassination attempt. Though warned by his contact not to make friends while hiding in a scenic Italian village, Jack or Edward nonetheless accepts the occasional companionship of the insistent local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), and becomes a regular client of a local prostitute (Violante Placido). When not chatting or mating, he is methodically building a rifle for a chilly client (Thekla Reuten) or methodically walking the quaint streets or methodically driving in countryside with a camera that fools no one into thinking that he is a photojournalist.
Clooney, to his credit, has a wonderfully expressive face. When told not to make friends by his contact, the slight rearrangement of facial muscles all but screams how very ticked Jack or Edward is to have been told something so obvious. When scanning a room, a street, or a river, he has a look of confident suspicion about what make be lurking with malevolent intent, and when he spots a butterfly, his particular weakness, there is something remarkable in how his face becomes gentle, even if the voice doesnt. His movements and speech are spare and economical. Good in an assassin, iffy as a films chosen mood when the director is unable to evoke the underlying turmoil. Here it is a disaster as the camera lingers on, among other things, an automatic door sliding shut long after it has slid into a stationary position. Is it shocked and awed to have just allowed Jack or Edward through? If so, those emotions are not transmitted to the audience forced to watch it deliberately not moving.
Much in this film deliberately doesnt move, including the plot until the last 15 minutes or so, when things pick up, but not enough to actually become compelling. It is as though the title of the novel is what is being made manifest. Jack or Edward is a very private gentleman and nothing about him in anyones business, even the audiences.
THE AMERICAN boasts the most anti-erotic sex scene to date in American cinema, capped off with Jack or Edward explaining to his prostitute the he is there to get pleasure, not give it. Its a far better metaphor for the flick that the butterfly motif woven throughout and tattooed on Jack or Edwards back. The film is there to enjoy itself on its own terms, the only catch is that unlike the prostitute who is paid for her time, the audience is forced to do the paying in more ways than one.