I admit, the first thing that attracted me to The American was the awesomely retro Saul Bass-inspired poster. I knew right away this would be a film to watch, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Hollywood rarely makes movies like this anymore. A definite throwback to the character thrillers of the 60s and 70s, The American reminds me of the deliberate sluggishly-paced espionage films my grandfather enjoyed but that I wouldn’t have the patience to sit through even in my teens. These are films like The French Connection, Day of the Jackal, Three Days of the Condor, Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Chinatown. These are all fantastic movies, but unbearable for a fidgety adolescent like myself. Luckily, I decided to seek out these films as an adult and was able to fully appreciate the artistry of restraint. Sometimes slow pacing is good pacing.
The American is a perfect example of this genre. In it, we meet George Clooney’s character in Sweden, stalked by mysterious men in snow camo. After an altercation, Clooney’s “handler” then sends him to a small hilltop town in Italy to hide out and receive his next assignment. I won’t spoil the rest of the plot, but I will say that most of the movie is spent observing Clooney’s character as he broods and wrestles with his deepening, but perhaps justified, paranoia.
This is a movie not afraid to linger. It is quiet and calculated. The screen next to ours was showing The Expendables, and it was LOUD. Lots of sound bleeding, with the reverberation of engines, machine guns, and explosions that interrupted our viewing from time to time. A literal illustration of the stark contrast between the influences of these two films. In fact, it is the utter silence of this film that makes the few action sequences that much more exciting and pragmatic. There are no superfluous sequences of violence, as most of the battles wage within the characters themselves.
The film has a small cast, and obviously Clooney carries this movie on his own, but I want to note that I enjoyed Paolo Bonacelli as the town’s priest very much, as he was perfect for the role. The score by Herbert Grönemeyer also fit the mood perfectly.
Other than Clooney, the film’s other star is the landscape and the architecture of the Italian town in which Clooney resides. The gorgeousness of the setting takes some pressure off the slow pace, but it is also the town itself, filled with meandering alleyways, that supplies much of the tension and “thrill of the chase” within the film. The director, Anton Corbijn, uses amazing cinematography to great effect. He also expertly employs some nice camera work, almost always keeping Clooney tight in the frame either as the central focus or off in the corner. The space surrounding Clooney is either slightly out of focus or it encompasses him completely to emphasize his paranoia and the murkiness of his thoughts.
While this film is not on my top ten list, I certainly enjoyed the change in pace. Anyone interested in 70’s Hollywood or real spy films should put this on their list.