George Clooney’s characters tend to be drawn from one of three wells, and only one at a time: wacky, charming, or distracted. He’s usually able to imbue any of these with some modicum of the charisma that’s made him a movie star, and when that magnetism and chosen persona combine with the right filmmaker, the result can be wonderful: the grinning idiot of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the sly con of Out of Sight, and the morally compromised soldier of Three Kings are as good examples as any. Yet it’s usually the serious and distracted persona that gives Clooney the most trouble, or at least finds him furthest out on a limb with nothing supporting him but the director’s whispered command to jump. The effortlessness he brings to other roles seems less accessible to him, as if he’s suddenly all too aware of the fact that he has to act and not just be. There are glimpses in these performances of real men and not just ciphers — for all its ponderousness, Solaris has some sharply observed moments in which Clooney as Chris Kelvin mourns his lost wife and succumbs to the madness of her potential return — but he has yet to find the material and director to make these types of movies anything more than mostly indulgent excursions.
Unfortunately, Anton Corbijn was not the director Clooney needed. Corbijn’s bread and butter for decades has been music videos, meaning he’s honed his skills at creating a definite tone for three and a half minutes without ever having to tell a story with even minimal complications. The American feels, all too often, like the world’s longest music video: the shots are all nicely composed, and there are compelling scenes that work in miniature, but nothing ever adds up to a complete narrative. It’s as if the story starts over every fifteen minutes or so. The action can be of passing interest in the moment, but any attempt to connect it to what’s happened before or what’s coming up feels not just impossible but irrelevant. Too muted and pensive to work as a thriller, too withdrawn to be a character study, and too cold to evoke any sympathy, the film is instead a dull and alienating exercise in how to take a strong actor and interesting premise and mostly waste them.
The title role feels tailor-made for Clooney to try out his serious face: Jack is a lonely, quiet man who makes a living creating specialty weapons for assassins, as well as apparently performing a few killings himself. After he’s found in Sweden by nameless villains who want to kill him for reasons never elucidated, he hides out in a small Italian village where his boss, Pavel (Johan Leysen), sets him up with a job constructing a special high-power rifle for a contact who goes by Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). Corbijn eschews score for sizable portions of the film, letting Clooney set the mood, but the actor’s only able to do this when he’s allowed to interact with the world around him, whether that manifests itself as building a gun or allowing himself to get drawn into regular conversations with a local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli). The screenplay from Rowan Joffe is based on a novel by Martin Booth, but Corbijn’s mistake is thinking that a novel’s quiet introspection can play out with the same dynamism on screen. There are, one assumes, whole swaths of the book that develop Jack as an emotional character while he’s not doing much of anything, but that doesn’t — can’t — work in a film. It’s only in the glimpses we get of Jack going about his skittish life that we start to understand him as a man: haunted by fear of unknown enemies, driven by precaution to paranoia, and possessed of a fastidious nature that’s perfectly at home with tactile work like machining a weapon. The film and Clooney are at their best together in these little flashes.
The film ebbs and flows like an accidental anthology of coincidentally related vignettes as Jack works on the weapon, plays occasional cat and mouse with people who always seem to watch him from afar and slip away, and spends increasing amounts of time with a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido). Corbijn isn’t making a stereotypical Hollywood thriller, with the stakes spelled out in neon and the loud fight scenes spaced every few minutes, but he doesn’t seem to realize there is such a thing as being too vague, and in his efforts to make some kind of art-house/thriller hybrid, he goes too far the other direction and creates a nicely rendered film with no emotional hook. Jack’s running from someone because of something, and he would like to leave the business for good because of some reason. That’s not a plot; that’s a pitch that was never fleshed out.
Yet Clooney, through it all, pulls his weight and more, and it’s only his skill that makes the film work in short bursts. Jack’s growing relationship with Clara lets him expertly show a man coming apart at the seams, unsure if he should let his guard down, move on, or suspect her of being yet another of the untold number of enemies he’s accrued as the cost of doing business. He’s also convincing in the few brief action sequences, and he’s almost refreshingly blunt when it comes to taking out his opponents. Jack isn’t Jason Bourne, and his skill is never portrayed as superhuman, merely fine-tuned. Sadly, much of the film goes in circles as Jack floats between woman, his apartment, and the increasingly shallow conversations with Benedetto that don’t even have the decency to pretend to be layered. Corbijn uses the priest like just another prop, a costume for a singer who only needs to look good for a moment without worrying about what comes later.
There are moments in The American that click and start to hum, but they’re precious few, and mostly smothered by the flat, unchanging film around them. Corbijn mistakes disengagement for restraint, and what could have been a quiet suspense story becomes a bland and murky one. The prologue before the opening credits, set before the main story, is a microcosm of everything that happens after: Jack, trying to settle down with a woman, is ambushed by faceless killers that he quickly and impressively dispatches before walking away from the whole situation to start over somewhere else. No antecedent cause or subsequent effect are ever revealed. As quickly as anything resembling complications, or a story, or anything interesting materializes, the film burns its bridges and rolls on. Jack’s a mystery, but never one worth solving.