The American was much maligned. It is a great movie. It suffers only from its marketing campaign.
It was promoted as an action thriller in which George Clooney plays George Clooney.
But it actually is an art house flick in which George Clooney embodies an archetype. It is the type of movie that used to be called a "procedural." Clooney is the loner. The sophistication of the enterprise is verified by the ratings aggregators: much higher reviews from critics than audiences, a sign of the discrepancy between experts and everyone else.
The director, Anton Corbijn, has a new movie coming out. (It stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, the best actor of his generation -- his excellence allowed him to span an incredible age range in characters, among other demonstrations of brilliance.) It is a good moment to comment on Corbijn's narrative debut. (He also did a docudrama.)
The American presents a simple story. Clooney plays Jack, also known as Edward, dubbed "Mr. Butterfly" for the tattoo between his shoulder blades.
He has no past and no future; he lives for the moment. We know not whether he is a hero or a villain. He wants out.
We ascertain he is involved with underworld machinations. They are what they always are: a double cross.
In the first few moments, the American is shown with a lovely "friend" whom, after they encounter a killer, he must eliminate, presumably because she is a witness -- to quite a bit. He dispatches her with the cool and calm that, as much as it is exalted in theory, must be abhorrent in practice.
Then he drives away.
The rest of the movie concerns his retreat to the Italian countryside. He meets a courtesan, whom he seems to fall for (his motivations remain opaque throughout); he discusses business with his handler (also a relationship obscure); and he agrees to take an assignment for a female killer who is even more sexually aroused than his lover (though he is such the professional he doesn't betray awareness of the attraction).
The count of violence and sex, for a movie of two generations later, is on par with any 1970s paranoid thriller. In addition to the opening sequence, there are two false alarms, one chase, the testing of the gun (which could go terribly wrong), and a culminating shootout. There are multiple scenes of female nudity. It's all staged with the utmost realism. There is reverence for as well as detachment from character and drama; there is no spectacle to speak.
If you are familiar with the original Day of the Jackal, an exemplar of cinematic classicism, The American makes it seem frenetic. The testing of the gun is superior to a similar scene in the remake, The Jackal, because it relies on exquisite anticipation rather than crude gore. This is a testament to the virtues of restraint.
The problem with the movie, to descend to calling it a problem, is that most of it depicts a life alone. Clooney is portrayed working out on his own, conversing with a priest who is curious about newcomers to town, and manufacturing a silencer for a high-powered firearm. (If you peruse the internet forums dedicated to weaponry, you will see a mix of admiration for the technical detail that is depicted with ridicule for the errors about muzzle velocity -- as if movies were to be accepted for their verisimilitude. The gun itself is merely a modified version of what would be available to anyone in America for under a thousand dollars.)
The images are presented with the clarity of honesty. A viewer always knows who is where; the editing does not enhance the action with a veil of shadowy jumpiness. Clooney is business like. The movie is too.
There are contrasting examples of cinematic excellence. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a contemporaneous cerebral thriller marketed as such. It also was critically acclaimed. But with its who's who ensemble cast, deliberate pacing, inside baseball machinations, and epic scope, and predecessor mini-series, Tinker did not surprise ticket-buyers. They entered the darkened cinema knowing they would be treated to an all but forgotten Cold War era of spies and counter-spies, shrouded in jargon and cigarette smoke. Trust no one; go to Budapest; meet your demise -- without ever realizing it was all about the pointlessness of geopolitical balance.
Perhaps we prefer our nihilism with the veneer of ideology.
The American, thus, shows how important expectations are. It is a movie about the expectations an assassin can rightly have about his colleagues, the expectations a client should have about a prostitute and vice versa, the expectations those who confess might have about the clergy, and, ultimately, the expectations of an audience toward a work of art.
It has a moral. Expectations serve no purpose but to be disappointed.