Nicolas Rapold’s L Mag takedown of The American becomes even funnier once you’ve seen the movie, because hoo boy will George Clooney’s butterfly tattoo prove to be symbolic. “The simulated movie of a still photographer using a small bag of tricks” is about right: Though the film concerns an icy-cool professional killer (Clooney) with “the hands of a craftsman,” and borrows its boiled-down endgame from existential-hitman classics like Le Samourai and Point Blank, it’s all just chic dress-up for another corny thriller with telegraphed twists and cliched one-last-job yearnings.
But then, if you, like The Measure’s Jesse Hassenger, take The American‘s popcorn-movie content as the given, rather than its retro-slick arthouse style, then the movie looks a little better: the underpopulated widescreen compositions, and long dialogue-free sequences, seem genuinely refreshing.
There are worse styles to rip off than suave Melvillian asceticism—as suits go, this one looks better than most on a mannequin, for one thing; for another, it’s one niche taste that seems designed to survive mainstream appropriation without being tainted or corrupted.
The American is hackwork, but it’s hackwork that avoids ostentation. The film is best in its opening seconds, as the camera settles in on a remote Swedish cabin, with nothing at all on the soundtrack: it’s silent, and still, and we’re raptly focused on the screen instead of being blown off it. Though Clooney’s character (who does push-ups and pull-ups like one of Paul Schrader’s buff monks) is mostly movie-lonely, and of course finds companionship with a local prosti, there are moments, driving alone through tunnels or late at night in cafes, where The American evinces a genuine understanding of solitude, contemplation, etc. And its thrills are generated through ruptures in the calm—by anticipating them, we learn to concentrate, a moviegoing skill that’s too often allowed to atrophy (though it’s vitally important to know how to concentrate, if you want to appreciate a number of movies that are better and more genuine than The American).
All of which may just be my way of justifying a very shallow movie that I enjoyed more than didn’t. But still.