Ponderous, pretentious, and soulless, The American serves up George Clooney's latest exercise in audience alienation. Aiding and abetting this box-office poison are Anton Corbijn's heavy-handed direction and Rowan Joffe's barebones script.
Jack (Clooney) is a contract assassin who has made his share of enemies in his tumultuous career. When several of those enemies track him down in Sweden, he flees to Italy, where his handler, Pavel (Johan Leysen), advises him to lie low for a while in a small Italian village. Despite Jack's best efforts to be antisocial, an undaunted old priest (Paolo Bonacelli) attempts to pry his way into Jack's life, and a local prostitute (Violante Placido) offers Jack an opportunity to escape his deadly profession. In the meantime, Pavel sends his associate, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), to subcontract Jack to construct a weapon with a submachine gun's power and a rifle's range for an unspecified job.
Though The American (rated R) has a promising premise, its long, still, quiet scenes prevent the film from establishing any narrative drive or rhythm. And Clooney simply does not have the acting chops to pull off the wordless, introspective sequences the film demands of him. His portrayal of Jack is so colorless and emotionless that one can hardly expect the audience to show any interest in Jack, much less care about his plight. The film needs a Daniel Day-Lewis or similarly skilled performer to convey the soul-draining nature of Jack's occupation while revealing the remnant of his humanity that offers a chance of redemption, a theme the filmmakers are clearly, though unsuccessfully, trying to present.
Of course, neither Clooney nor the rest of the cast is helped by what is essentially an outline of a screenplay. Somewhere in between the extended static scenes and Clooney's vacant stares an interesting film might be lurking, but the audience is left with little more than shallow characters and gratuitous nudity.
The one redeeming quality of The American is the old priest's strenuous efforts to show Jack that God is powerful enough to forgive even the greatest sins, including the production of this film.
-Michael Leaser is editor of FilmGrace and an associate of The Clapham Group