There are those who will watch The American and immediately write it off for being slow. Then there are those pretentious few, such as a commenter on Jim Emerson’s Scanners blog, who believe that “the movie is too subtle for audiences who are fed CSI and Law and Order.” There’s this us versus them mentality that gets infused into conversations about movies such as this one – either the filmmakers think they’re clever but they aren’t, or the people who “get it” are much smarter than the people that don’t.
I wouldn’t say that I’m ‘on the fence’, but I definitely do not side with either of those camps fully. Yes, the movie is slow. We follow an assassin named Jack (Clooney) as he waits in a small European town (very In Bruges-like), occasionally accepting an order from his shady boss to build a gun or hanging out with a local prostitute. He walks around the town alone, he sips coffee in an empty restaurant. And so on.
But being slow is not inherently a bad thing. There are a few moments that are mesmerizing. I loved watching Clooney building the gun – picking out pieces, filing them down, making sure that they were all the right size and in the right place. The precision and focus with which he set to his craft sent shivers down my spine. Maybe that’s just me, though. I’ve always had a strange fascination with watching people performing their jobs with purpose and care. The slow pace also adds some to the paranoid feeling that Jack must be feeling, knowing that he is likely to be attacked at any moment by his enemies. He has to constantly look over his shoulder to make sure he is safe.
I discussed the movie with a friend of mine after seeing it and his main concern was that the movie traffics in a lot of cliches. The assassin pulling one last job, the hooker with a heart of gold, and so on. In Ann Hornaday’s fantastic Washington Post review of the film, she says that the fact that “The American traffics in such well-worn types could be forgiven if the filmmakers gave them even the gentlest of twists.” After all of these cliches have played themselves out, Hornaday sees that the movie “finally asks the audience to care — much too late.” That may be the case, but I’ve kind of begun interpreting the film another way.
Roger Ebert claims that Jack’s one flaw is love. Ebert thinks that the assassin loves the prostitute that he shacks up with for the majority of the film. I find it much less likely that he is in love with the prostitute than it is that he is in love with the idea of living a normal life – settling down with a nice woman and not having to worry about being killed at all hours of the day. But in thinking about this, I realize that perhaps the movie is not so much about Clooney the man – as Ebert’s personalized interpretation of Jack’s flaws suggest – but instead about Clooney the assassin. Or, more accurately, the role of assassin in general. A lot of the movie is about the looking-over-the-shoulder, the jumping in the middle of the night. These are things that anybody in a similar situation would do; they are not specific to Clooney’s character. When the film tries to delve into the personal (Jack’s flashbacks, conversations with the priest, etc.) are when it is at its weakest.
So, as a portrait of an assassin the movie is pretty good. As a portrait of this particular assassin, the movie is plodding and boring. It does a great job of showing us the type of environment Jack must live in, but it fails to provide any reason for us to care about him other than the fact that he doesn’t want to die. The final moments of the film are, I assume, intended to be emotionally piercing. But it is too little too late – there is never anything to connect the audience with the character. I’m not saying that there necessarily needed to be, but the movie needed to make up its mind.