By TOM DELLAFERA
“The American” is not an easy movie to review. It does some things right on the whole, but for some viewers the good may be overshadowed by the slow pace and a host of other nagging problems.
The film follows Jack (George Clooney), the titular American protagonist of questionable employ as he evades “the Swedes.” Pavel (Johan Leysen), Jack’s handler, instructs him to hide out in Italy and do a job for him.
It is unclear exactly what Jack’s line of work is, as throughout the film we are given the impression that he is a trained killer, but while in Italy he is custom-building a weapon for another assassin under the handler. The film follows his life in hiding and his romance with a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido) as his paranoia escalates.
From a technical perspective, the movie is solid. The trailer would have you believe that “The American” is an action/spy movie with brains, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Clooney’s acting carries the film through a slow, uncertain, almost meditative pace. Every moment is spent with his shifting view of the characters he meets and works with.
The movie never lets you forget that he is in hiding, and we are made to feel his paranoia through the silence of most of the scenes, along with a nail-biting soundtrack. The film spends so much time establishing this sense of concern and look-over-your-shoulder tension that, when nothing comes of it at times, it’s both relieving and frustrating.
Almost every interaction is plagued by uncertainty, as he feels he cannot trust anyone. He eventually opens up to the prostitute he visits habitually, but there isn’t as much chemistry between the two as it feels like there ought to be as the plot runs its course.
While the film is successful as an exercise in how paranoia can tear a man apart, it fails to be intriguing, action-packed or deliver a strong plot. It is never explained why “the Swedes” who pursue him do so, or even who they are.
The film is full of clichés, ranging from the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold to the priest-with-something-to-hide, and as the film goes on, it becomes clear that the mandatory spy movie handler-double-cross trope is also in play. This too goes unremarked upon, and the reasoning behind it is never understood.
We learn nothing about Jack, nor do we find out anything about his relationship to the people who try to kill him, and in the end this makes it pretty hard to care about anything happening on-screen.
Ultimately, we see Clooney looking sad and alone for an hour and forty minutes, frequently interspersed with full frontal nudity and a scant few instances of people in sunglasses shooting each other. And there is a lot of that nudity, for the record.
If you are looking to know what an undercover killer deals with in terms of paranoia and trust issues, this movie might be for you. Otherwise, you could probably stand to miss it.