The American is the kind of film that’s instantly going to alienate most mainstream American audiences; it’s slow, it’s intelligent, it’s meditative, and it’s philosophical. Anyone expecting an action film or a quickly-paced thriller is going to either fall asleep or leave the theatre. So it’s a bit surprising this is something Clooney would sign up for. Not that he hasn’t participated in films with artistic leanings in the past, but never something to this uncommercial a degree. This is much more along the lines of Antonioni’s The Passenger versus something like Michael Clayton or Syriana.
This is essentially an existential meditation on loneliness and love. The main character Jack, played by Clooney, has spent his life isolated from people, and he’s been worn down by it. But as much as he longs for connection, he’s still intensely private and quiet, and the style and pacing of the film take their queue from that. The dialogue is exceedingly spare, and there are a lot of lingering, contemplative shots. So it’s a good thing that the cinematography is so gorgeous. It’s also a good thing that the film is directed with such intelligence that all of the long silences are guided by a very focused, contemplative questioning. This is not a film that barrels along and hits you over the head with action or plot twists, but a film that asks you to look closely, study what you find, search for feeling, and ponder meaning.
Narratively, the film splits its time between detailing Clooney’s latest job, providing a weapon to a fellow assassin and a romance with a local Italian prostitue. He receives the weapon itself in pieces through the mail and simply has to assemble it, but a great deal of time is spent as he custom builds a suppressor out of found machine parts. This is probably the weakest part of the film, for as much time as is spent on it, and as central to the storyline as Jack’s knowledge and experience with weapons are, it’s disappointing to find out that the film really doesn’t get one thing right regarding the choice of weapons, their portrayal, or the way Jack builds the suppressor. In a lesser film this may not be an issue, but in a film that is otherwise so intelligent, so particular, and so focused, to get everything wrong about such a central part of the film is really inexcusable.
His relationship with a local prostitute is his attempt to seek sex and some form of companionship while still keeping a woman at arm’s length and not endangering her. His boss thinks he’s slipping and has begun to lose his touch, and it’s evident that even Jack knows he’s become wary and desiring of a different life. Yet, for all of his intentions, Jack finds himself unable to keep the relationship purely physical and to deny his emotions. There’s also somewhat of a burgeoning friendship with a local priest, which allows for several philosophical conversations about damnation and salvation, and an illustration of the disparity between idealistic intentions and choices made in an imperfect world.
With the glut of self-aware, hip, pop culture-obsessed hitmen films about “one last job,” it’s refreshing that someone has finally made a film about a hitman that is not simply a lazy way to write guns, violence, and sex into script. Ironically enough, this film has all of those things; but what is so different is the attitude towards them. Sex in The American isn’t something to titillate, but something to meditate on. Violence and guns aren’t something to keep the audience awake and watching, but tools to ask questions about humanity. And this is all front and center, so The American doesn’t try to entertain you while doing this and then do its real business under the table; it’s sincere in its questions and musings, and that is the entire purpose of the film. On the one hand, the search for existential meaning isn’t exclusive to a hitman, and this longing for connection and purpose is something anyone should be able to relate to. On the other hand, there are certainly degrees of isolation, loneliness, and guilt that wouldn’t necessarily be found in a lot of other characters and make the specifics of the film a very well chosen way to explore these themes.
For all of my talk about how intelligent and cerebral the film is, there are still some suspenseful scenes, and something that happens in the third act that is borderline shocking and very smartly-plotted. Yet, most of the suspense is achieved through studiously crafted mood; there’s a scene where you know a character is going to pull a gun and shoot Jack at point blank until a bus of passengers pulls up just in time. There’s nothing narrative to make this a complete certainty, although there are suggestions of it; but the contemplative tone the film has built results in the audience simply not needing much, because like Jack, we’ve learned to read so much from so very few details. And that makes the suspense extremely concise and tangible throughout.
The American is finally a film about the struggle for salvation, redemption, and forgiveness, with the emphasis on “struggle.” I can’t really make a specific argument without giving away the ending, but I can say that it will disappoint anyone who wants those things handed to them at the end in an easy Hollywood fashion wrapped in a pretty bow. Just as in life, when things are earned, they’re usually long struggled for. And often the fruits of our labor look different than we might imagine them during that long struggle.