George Clooney stars in this methodical and subtle thriller complemented by beautiful visuals. Famed photographer and music video director Anton Corbijn whose stark black and whites of superband U2 may be his most popular work directs a solid piece that seems allegorical in nature. That a photographer directed this movie becomes evidently clear in the cinematography — slow pans and stills with lots and lots of visual tension. It’s a movie with very little dialogue or direct explanation of the events — things happen, and the audience is watching. Imagine having to deduce a photograph’s story solely from the contents within. Corbijn’s direction is deliberate and paced, and The American is best seen by looking at what’s hidden in the negative spaces.
Clooney plays Jack, aka Mr. Butterfly, an assassin whose career path leaves no room for long-term relationships of any kind. Aging but still precise, he’s hunted by Swedish hitmen looking for revenge. Life as an assassin begins to take its toll on Jack during a forced vacation hiding in a hillside village in Italy. Jack comes into contact with people despite him being warned to not make any friends. Relationships become dangerous, not because they become direct threats but how they force him to choose between the life he has and the life he wants.
Camerawork consists of long, drawn out shots of landscape or prying closeups that feel like you’re looking through a sniper scope. In one scene, audiences might not understand why they’re watching two automatic doors slowly slide open and then shut. They may not care. Left to contemplate the meaning of something so at-once mundane and yet profound, it made me think of the avenues we open and shut by our own discretion and the people who enter our lives at their own risk. It’s a thoughtful film that eschews explaining itself through character dialogue, and it feels that way stubbornly so. Clooney is still on top of his game, managing to draw out a subtle and sharp performance. Jack is a conflicted mess rife with inner turmoil. Talent of a higher level is required to emote and bring gravity to an introvert like Jack. It’s something that requires a mature and experienced presence like Clooney’s. In the end, I interpreted the movie thus: From the film’s standpoint, America is out of place in the world. It’s destructive, cavalier, and audacious. It keeps itself aloof pretending to be an island while also making attempts to attach itself to something meaningful. Ironically it creates an end to itself.