Erik Hayden at The Atlantic with the round-up. Hayden:
The options could hardly be starker for Labor Day movie-goers. On one hand, there’s the blood-stained Machete, which seems to revel in the number of body-parts it dismembers for the pleasure of audiences. And, of course, there’s also that European-tinged, art-house hitman movie with the relatively unassuming poster of George Clooney furrowing his brow. What’s that one about, exactly? It appears that nearly half of our nation’s finest critics lost their patience with the slow-burning film before trying to figure that out.
The film itself, directed by 2007’s Control helmer, Anton Corbijn, takes its cues from Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 landmark The Passenger and builds upon the book it’s adapted from, Rowan Joffe’s A Very Private Gentleman. It follows a international hitman (George Clooney) whose real name is unimportant , and who quietly delivers all that’s expected of him (the closest thing to a spoiler is that the film is fraught with “butterfly symbolism”).
Christopher Orr at The Atlantic:
In his latest film, George Clooney plays an international hitman variously addressed as “Jack” and “Edward,” though we’re given little reason to imagine that either name has attached itself to him for long. In the hilly Italian hamlets where the bulk of the story takes place he’s known best, and most evocatively, as “The American”—which is also, for simplicity’s sake, the title of the picture.
The protagonist’s name, in any case, is largely incidental: Clooney is playing Clooney. (As if there were anyone else we’d genuinely prefer him to be.) He works here on the somber edge of his personal spectrum, more Solaris than Leatherheads. But dour or droll, he remains contemporary cinema’s most effortless star, and this easy magnetism is the primary engine driving director Anton Corbijn’s low-key, European-style thriller. Evoking Steve McQueen rather than his customary Cary Grant, Clooney is less Everyman than every man’s idealized self: stoic yet not unfeeling, bruised but unfaltering. Sadness lurks in the crinkle of his crow’s feet, but flickers of hope as well.
Dana Stevens at Slate:
For all the demands it will place on the viewer’s attention span, though, The American doesn’t start slow. It kicks off with an absolutely killer cold open in a snowbound cabin in Sweden, where the American of the title, Jack (George Clooney) is romancing a lissome Scandinavian honey. Their postcoital stroll turns unexpectedly violent—a development that’s all the more frightening for taking place in absolute, snow-muffled silence. Jack goes into hiding in Italy, instructed by his superior Pavel (Johan Leysen) to lie low for a while. (We never do learn exactly what kind of organization Jack works for—is he a CIA agent? An international operative of some kind? A mercenary?) A tiny hillside village in Abruzzo becomes Jack’s temporary home. Again on the instructions of the mysterious Pavel, Jack—who, apparently, is a world-class gunsmith—begins working on a special custom-designed weapon for a female assassin (Thekla Reuten).
The entire middle section of the film consists of long scenes of Jack alone in his pensione, machining gun parts. For recreation, he drinks brandy with the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and seeks the favors of a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido). This part of the movie may lose many viewers: Hey, I didn’t pay 12 bucks for a George Clooney spy movie so I could watch the man sit silently in front of a lathe! But Corbijn’s bare-bones reduction of the spy genre to its constituent parts has its own dry, spare charm. By the time that gun is finally built, we know a lot more about Jack’s character than we did going in, and we’re keen to see what the weapon will eventually get used for.
Given that—even in character as a gaunt, brooding, emotionally remote assassin—George Clooney is George Clooney, Clara the prostitute soon falls in love with him. (It doesn’t hurt that he uses his brothel time to give her sexual pleasure.) The prospect of a new life with this adoring, implausibly softhearted young woman begins to crack Jack’s shell, and he entertains the possibility of retiring from the business after he finishes this one last job ….
It’s a testament to Corbijn’s directorial gifts that a movie featuring “one last job,” a taciturn loner, and a hooker with a heart of gold could feel as crisp and unusual as The American. Corbijn’s aesthetic choices are consistently unexpected: He films the Italian hill town where Jack holes up not as an Under the Tuscan Sun-style postcard, but as an intriguing set of geometric patterns. And Lord, what a relief to watch a movie, thriller or otherwise, that isn’t scored to within an inch of its life. (When it does appear, the music, by Herbert Gronemeyer, is appropriately contemplative.)
John Nolte at Big Hollywood:
Anyone looking for a thriller will be quickly disappointed. Director Anron Corbijn isn’t interested in action. At all. As a matter of fact, Jack’s pursuers are as easy to kill as red-shirted “Star Trek” crewmen. This is a mood and character piece experimenting with silence and stillness in the hopes of making large the small moments, movements and gestures that come from a character too emotionally isolated and permanently on guard to offer up anything else. Chatter and exposition and back-story would only betray the essence of this character, which means that it’s up to Clooney fill in the pieces using only his screen presence. Thanks to his first truly outstanding and Oscar-worthy performance, Clooney not only accomplishes this, he also draws us in wanting to know more. Who is this man? What made him who he is? Will he redeem himself?
Unfortunately, it’s here where the story finally collapses.
Okay, so there’s nothing cinematically subtle about a fallen man at a crossroads in his life and at the same time befriended by the extremes of priest and prostitute. But that doesn’t mean the idea at work there can’t be interesting. The problem is that like the rest of the thematic track you’re deceived into believing the film is laying, it’s all a cheat. Not a single thematic element goes anywhere or even attempts to assume any kind of meaning. Jack might be handsome, worldly and refined, but he also happens to be a sociopath. To root for him, to want Jack to become Edward and get out from under the sins of his past, we have to see something worthy of redemption. But we don’t, and still the film roots for him, which is especially obvious in the melodramatic climax.
“The American” dares to burden itself (and us) with the heavy symbolism of priest, prostitute, and butterfly, not to mention Jack’s unforgivable crime, but then doesn’t have the courage to deliver on what it means – other than (snore) the futility of it all. This makes for a numbing third act and turns the hushed moments and clipped dialogue and lingering stares into something worse than pretense. Slowly, what once drew you in devolves into cold disappointment and watch-checking tedium — at least until the credits roll, at which point you’re completely numb.
No matter how good the acting, lovely the locations, pretty the cinematography or pregnant the pauses; no matter how much you might tart something up with the whiff of self-important existentialism, just as black is the absence of color, indifference is not a theme — it’s the absence of theme. Nihilism is not art. Nihilism is the absence of art. Which isn’t to say that this subdued and self-consciously quiet examination of the barren existence of an aging hit man tired of looking over his shoulder is without merit. What the film is without, however, is a point – which appears to be the point, which means that we have here is a deliberate act of artistic cowardice.
Todd McCarthy at Indiewire:
The tone of the film recalls the fine, spare 1970s work of screenwriter Alan Sharp in the perennially underrated “Night Moves,” “The Hired Hand” and “The Last Run,” the latter especially because it involved an American criminal dragged out of his retirement in a European village. The fact that John Huston started directing “The Last Run” (he was replaced by Richard Flesicher) and helped write “The Killers” establishes a Hemingway connection; like the hunted figure in “The Killers,” Jack/Edward knows what’s coming but doesn’t know when or from where, leaving him only with the choice of how to deal with it philosophically.
The emotion, such as it is, comes at the end of a very long fuse, when everything that the man has kept so tightly bottled up comes boiling to the surface; Jack/Edward has one shot at possibly escaping his presumed destiny and Clooney indelibly catches the character’s desperate anxiety and fearful hope as he tries to slip through the eye of the needle. You can see the blood rise to his face with his long-suppressed emotion and it’s a sight to behold.
Stephanie Zacharek at Movieline:
Watching The American, it struck me how unusual it is, in contemporary movies, to see a love scene involving a man and a prostitute that’s both carnal and tender. The unspoken wisdom is that these things have to be presented as something tawdry and dirty, because, heaven forbid, we’re not supposed to approve of them.
But even Corbijn’s approach to nudity is refreshingly nonjudgmental and unfettered; he isn’t looking for approval or disapproval, but simply to draw out feeling. Before the screening, a colleague and I wondered aloud why the studio releasing The American, Focus Features, waited until two days before the movie’s opening to show it to critics. The assumption most critics make when a studio “hides” a movie is that it’s lousy. But as we waited for the movie to start, I suggested that maybe Focus had kept the movie from us because they had something with no rapid-fire editing or shaky-cam, because the story makes sense, because the visuals show some thought and some care.
As it turned out, that’s exactly the kind of movie I found The American to be. And in this climate, how is a studio supposed to sell that? The movie’s distinctive qualities aren’t the sort of thing that generates buzz, and I’m beginning to fear that even word of mouth, of the “It’s boring” variety, may come to hurt it at the box office. Perhaps that’s what happens to a movie that asks you to see instead of just look. I hope not.