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The American

A few pensive, anxious days in the life of an assassin

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Taking aim: George Clooney
  • Taking aim: George Clooney

The Euro-centric The American opens in Sweden where, in short succession, its titular character snuggles with a beauty, narrowly escapes being shot, and quickly dispatches his two assassins and the girl. Then he nips off to Italy, where he makes contact with a boss, who suggests he hide out in the mountain villages of Abruzzo while working on his next "job." Nothing is ever really explained, but in time it becomes clear that this "Edward" (George Clooney) is in the assassination business. But the hunter is also the hunted -- Edward is jumpy -- and there is a strange man lurking about.

Less mysterious are the two individuals Edward befriends in the village -- a sage old priest ("You are an American, so you think you can escape history") and a gorgeous prostitute who speaks perfect English. In a film that stubbornly clings to its own quirks -- refusing to explain much of the story and unfolding in slow, meditative bits and pieces -- trundling out these stock characters seems too easy.

And like other sympathetic dramas about assassins, The American enjoys the built-in contradiction inherent in the job -- how can this nice guy kill for a living? -- and much of the film seems to be about the interior unraveling of Edward. Not that he'll tell you -- the dialogue is spare and small talk prevails -- but there's a heaviness in Clooney's performance that says beneath Edward's efficiency lies a lot of unresolved turmoil.

The American is the second feature from Anton Corbijn, the noted photographer and music-video director who expanded his repertoire three years ago with the well-received Ian Curtis bio-pic Control. Corbijn is no stranger to creating atmosphere with cameras, and the film is handsomely filmed. But don't expect much flash: There are pictorial shots of fog-shrouded villages, pensive portraits that place the protagonist in the corner of the frame and sly bits of visual cleverness. His slightly flattened high shots of Clooney traversing the village's twisty network of pathways suggest an inescapable Escher creation. In another scene, Corbijn tips his hat to a forbearer in dialogueless, morally ambivalent cinema, Sergio Leone.

Clooney is imminently watchable, though fans of his glib charm will be disappointed, and this film has virtually none of the action that its kicky poster suggests. It's light on plot, moody and closer to a European character study than an American thriller. And even the patient viewer may take exception to the film's noirishly existential ending. In English, and some Italian, with subtitles.

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