Usually, when the only critics screening of a star-driven spy thriller is just two days before opening, it’s an indication that there’s a problem. And there is. This is not an action movie, and it’s certainly not a conventional thriller. Not that it isn’t intriguing. It is – if you’re into meditative, minimalist, non-commercial, European-style filmmaking.
Enigmatic Jack (George Clooney) is a master assassin. You never learn anything about his psychological motivation or social background, just that he’s a dour, taciturn loner, filled with melancholy inner turmoil, who often enjoys the company of beautiful women.
Jack’s grimly inexplicable story begins in desolate, snow-covered Dalarma, Sweden, where he’s being hunted. After reporting in to his handler, Pavel (Johan Leysen), he’s dispatched to picturesque Castel Del Monte, an ancient Abruzzo hill town in Italy, where he’s told to craft a custom-designed weapon for inscrutable Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), who is obviously a professional killer too. “You want the capacity of a machine gun with the range of a rifle?” he ascertains in order to acquire the required parts.
Between strenuous exercise sessions and methodically constructing this weapon in the privacy of his rented room, Jack bonds with a gregarious priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), even though he concedes, “I don’t think God is interested in me,” and he takes up with Clara (Violante Placido), a prostitute at a nearby bordello.
Based on Martin Booth’s novel, “A Very Private Gentleman,” it’s been adapted for the screen by Rowan Joffe and directed by Netherlands-born Anton Corbjin, best known for the biopic “Control.” A former photographer, Corbjin’s erotic symbolism permeates the picture – like when Reuten sensuously assembles the gun that Clooney has fastidiously made. But there are several pretentiously disconcerting elements, including the almost deserted nature of Castel Del Monte. No one else ever walks on the quaint, cobblestone streets except these specific characters, along with another couple of killers-for-hire.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The American” is a spare, self-consciously somber 6. It’s a visually captivating study in stillness but it’s not emotionally involving.