Adapted from Martin Booth’s 1990 novel A Very Private Gentleman, Anton Corbijn’s slow-burning thriller The American has been given an appropriately nondescript title. For the few who encounter George Clooney’s mysterious character, his nationality is the only thing they really know about him; the audience doesn’t get to learn much more, even after spending every minute of the movie with him. This may sound like a weakness, but Corbijn and his screenwriter, Rowan Joffe, play coy for a reason; it’s the nature of their hero’s mercenary occupation, as a craftsman of weapons for assassins, that he reveals as little about himself as possible. The American’s muted pleasures rest heavily on the sustained air of mystery around Clooney, and Corbijn, a pristine stylist, keeps the atmosphere nice and thick.
After dodging an assassination attempt in remote Sweden, Clooney resettles in an idyllic village in the Italian countryside, where he’s agreed to take one last job before an uncertain retirement. Tasked with creating a weapon with the long-range precision of a rifle and the rapid firepower of a sub-machine gun, Clooney quietly sets to work on the project, but he can’t hide under the cloak of anonymity for long. A local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) questions his cover as a travel photographer, and his relationship with prostitute Violante Placido (the absurdly beautiful daughter of Simonetta Stefanelli, best known for playing Michael Corleone’s Sicilian first wife in The Godfather) slips from professional to personal. He also has to worry about his client (Thekla Reuten) and some shifty types he sees on the streets.
With its focus on the fascinating minutiae of carrying out an assassination, The American partly resembles the fine 1973 thriller The Day Of The Jackal, about an attempt on Charles de Gaulle’s life, though it’s much sparer, and completely apolitical. Corbijn and Joffe aren’t interested in the real-world ramifications of Clooney’s work so much as the erosion of his soul, and Clooney plays the role with typical understatement. The strengths and weaknesses of The American are similar to those of Corbijn’s Joy Division biopic Control. He’s a patient, fastidious filmmaker with a great eye—ideal for his subject here—but his austerity doesn’t entirely erase the suspicion that he doesn’t have much on his mind. His film is a triumph, but it may be a triumph of style over substance.