Movie Review | The American
Movie summary: An assassin hides out in Italy for one last assignment. (IMDb)
The American is not your typical movie about an assassin in hiding, which would usually end up in a chaotic action-packed and explosive finale in a Hollywood production. Instead, this is a much slower character piece about a man dealing with where his life has led him and how he can change, which he struggles to do thanks to the kind of people he has dealt with.
The first point of praise I have for this movie is how grown-up it is, by which I mean how well it deals with material that would normally be glamorised and exaggerated. There are shootouts where people die as quickly and messily as you'd expect in reality; there's some cursing, but used appropriately; and there's sex and nudity, which is treated as an everyday part of life like it should be.
This sense of realism extends to the characters, all of whom feel fully-formed and existing as if they have their own lives that we're seeing a part of, not just characters to tell a story in this movie. They all have very clear identities, lives that inform who they are and how they act, and they have very different relationships with George Clooney's Jack/Edward.
I was going to use 'Clooney' instead of a character name where needed, because we never find out what his actual real name is - which is pretty good operating practice for an assassin after all - but considering what his character does in this movie, I think it's best if I just copy/paste a lot. This is also one way of me praising Clooney's performance, because how can you spend so much time getting to know someone and still not know their name by the time the credits roll?
This is on top of Jack/Edward's expression barely changing to any noticeable degree throughout, while also speaking as little as possible. Yet, this isn't a movie with lingering shots of the (admittedly stunning) scenery in the Italian countryside to pad out the time, nor is it packed with montages that provide an excuse to avoid hearing the character speak.
Instead, this is very much a case of "show, don't tell", with the audience learning more about Jack/Edward through watching what he's doing or observing how he's reacting to others instead of having him verbally explain things. Again, this fits with his character: why would an assassin want anybody to know anything about them?
His main purpose while in hiding from the Swedes hunting him is to build a weapon for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), who shares similarities in profession with him. Much like him, she's entirely professional the entire time, although her youth and relative inexperience to Jack/Edward means that she's willing to prod him now and then, clearly not quite as inhibited with her emotions as he is.
Even then, she's not the love interest, although it is hard to say exactly what his feelings are for Clara (Violante Placido), a prostitute. Their relationship begins entirely transactional, but does slowly develop into something more, especially on Clara's side. Whether Jack/Edward returns the level of feeling or simply views her as a potential escape from his life of killing is never made clear, but I think his concern for her near the end shows that he does at least feel something for her.
And this isn't to say that Clara only exists to serve Jack/Edward's character either. It's made clear that she has a life and friends of her own, with plans for her future that only change as her feelings for him develop over the course of the movie. Despite what some might think about her chosen profession, she's arguably the 'cleanest' character in The American.
Yes, The American is a movie where a prostitute can arguably be said to be more morally upstanding than a priest, such as Father Benedetto, played by Paolo Bonacelli. He might well posses wisdom to share with and receive from Jack/Edward, but has a certain part of his own life that he does not like, much like the titular assassin and his sex worker lover.
As for the little action there is, including brief shootouts and a similarly short chase, it's as brutal, efficient and looks as damned painful as you'd expect. People are shot and killed very quickly, there's a neck break that actually shows the effort needed to do so and an act of sabotage which results in a face becoming a literal bloody mess. Just to make abundantly clear: this is not an action movie in any way, shape or form - do not expect one.
One other thing I do like about The American and making things as realistic as possible is how little pieces of behaviour and body language show us so much about each character. To start with, Jack/Edward is emotionless and mechanical as he builds Mathilde's weapon, being clearly skilled at what he does, but gaining absolutely no pleasure from it.
Clara clearly wants more from her life too other than being paid for sex. Violante Placido is a very attractive women and, in a lot of other movies, her stripping off would be highly sexualised. Instead, when she first gets naked here, she does so as if she's about to get into a bath or change clothes rather than possessing any excitement for what she's about to do with Jack/Edward.
Pavel (Johan Leysen), one of Jack/Edward's contacts and the man who sent him into hiding and provided him with the work for Mathilde is fed up with the hassle of dealing with this American and just wants the job done; Mathilde is full of purpose, both as she moves and speaks; while Benedetto shuffles along, trying to do his duty as priest in his old age.
I can imagine that this will sound dull to some, but I would still thoroughly recommend The American as a movie to watch and enjoy on its own terms. For me, the only real flaw was how much it wanted to hammer home how suspicious and mistrustful Jack/Edward's life has made him, although his almost-paranoia does raise the tension in some scenes thanks to his reactions to perfectly innocent events making them feel more sinister than they are.
The American is a slow burn that will absolutely not be for anyone expecting the usual thrills of a movie centred around an assassin, but is such a pleasure to just relax and enjoy, soaking up the atmosphere as Jack/Edward comes to terms with where his life has led him. Gloriously grown-up and thoughtful about its subject, without ever coming close to being overly-serious.