The American is a misleading title. Little of the film’s main character, an erstwhile assassin (George Clooney), conjures up America. Jack, as he is first called, speaks little and dresses less. It’s all rusty, dark browns, ocher and Italian accessories. Nationality itself, as far as the plot is concerned, seems more a matter of landscape than politics. Jack is introduced at a cabin in quiet, rural Sweden cupping a glass of wine and a curvy nude. The man appears distant, even up close, and he looks like he might be a foreigner anywhere. He later moves on to a silent medieval Italian town tucked up into the spine of an Abruzzian hill. The only hint of his native country comes out in his accent, which isn’t actually all that American.
The director, Anton Corbijn, whose repeated geometric patterned village-scapes and broad, flat monochromatic squares of grass, snow and sky recall early Mondriaan, is Dutch. The opening credits swell with Italian names. Knowing none of these things going into the film, coupled with the title and Clooney’s art deco, suited silhouette on the poster, you might be surprised by what follows.
Corbijn is a photographer by profession and it shows in the cinematography. Often characters seem the background of a larger portrait of a moody room, an empty bar or forested stream. The assassin, Edward, once in Italy, poses as a photographer. So begins a long meditation on the relationship between photographers and their subjects. The assassin, like the photographer, fits nicely into this structure: neither can afford to be too close or too far to their subject. Both, existing just outside of the world which they handle, reach in and stop time. The American deals more than anything else with the peculiar aloofness necessary to do this kind of work, and do it well.
His work is to make a specialized rifle, which leads into a thorough display of the kind of things otherwise hidden in action films: waiting, watching, scrounging for parts, and then patiently assembling the rifle itself. The particular style of his work, and the way it is filmed, assumes a decidedly European flavor. He never looks out of place; never makes a false step and speaks passable Italian. When he meets his contact at the bank of a stream to test the rifle he brings picnic fare as a cover. As he empties the bottle of Muscatto his contact points out that the wine they are not drinking has been chilled. The American shrugs and says, “Italian Police.”
Like photography, whose work only minimally requires the actual taking of photographs, assassination seems to seldom involve the actual taking of lives. Preparation, and recuperation, occupy most of the assassin’s time. When he is not meeting or calling contacts, he files, hammers, melds, fits, and polishes. Only a few steps away from his work desk, he does similar work on his own body, which looks as lean as the film does. These reflections, like those of the mirrored work of photography and assassination, pervade the action. What seems formally like minimalism-sparse dialogue, stylized silence, taciturn streets- becomes much grander taken all together: loneliness assumes a more austere character; aloofness seems essential for art, not only art-making. Austerity and reticence are not exactly inviting characteristics, and the collective sigh (or groan) released by the theatergoers as the film faded to black recalled the sounds of having been rejected. One man behind me began a subdued sort of angry shouting. The couple beside me, who arrived happily enough, looked as though they had just broken up. My grandmother went out of her way to contact me the next day to tell me not to go see it. I certainly felt odd as the final credits appeared, as though I’d been caught in a building moments before it collapsed.