I recently watched The American, with George Clooney. I went in with a somewhat hazy recollection of some reviews from last year when it was released. Generally, the impression I got was that it was a character study of a craftsman at work on a rifle – kind of a cut-out and expansion of the weapon seller in Day of the Jackal.
It quickly became apparent that the key to enjoying and understanding the film would be in the silences and omissions, rather than in the dialogue, which might optimistically be described as “sparse”. This is a very difficult way of making an enjoyable and engaging film. My favourite film in this mode is Lost in Translation, which I have watched many times, and which I think is a difficult and confusing film mostly because almost nothing seems to happen. The story in the gaps, silences and pauses is not quite a love story, and that makes it interesting. Re-watch Vertigo and you’ll see what I mean: try and pinpoint the moment when Scotty falls in love. It’s impossible, because it happens in the gaps between the dialogue, between the overt action.
Unfortunately, sometimes nothing happening is simply nothing happening. I found A History of Violence and Appaloosa, which are also in this kind of stylistic vein, pretty hard going. The dialogue seemed to try and fill the void rather than emphasise it the way Lost in Translation did, and the violence, when it surges into the picture, drowns the carefully constructed mood. I’m lead to understand that in Somewhere, Sofia Coppola tried to reproduce the void from Lost In Translation and failed.
The American then, is in this same style. It is a film about observing someone and coming to your own conclusions. Clooney is enormously photogenic and watchable, and this film relies heavily on that screen presence. In this film he assumes an almost stoic exterior, suppressing virtually all emotion, but he can’t quite become the stone-cold killer that I think was the intention.
He forms two relationships over the course of the film, with a whore and a priest. That choice is not really all that subtle. Even the crudest surface reading of an assassin forming a relationship with a priest raises questions of redemption and of motivation. And a hit man is, if not exactly a prostitute, someone who effectively contracts out of their ordinary human relationships and mode, someone who is effectively for sale. This subtext effectively becomes text a few times, in fragments of conversation. He is someone trapped by their circumstances, and again, this subtext is pressed to the surfaces in a series of short violent interludes.
The most engaging scenes are those where Jack builds and tests his weapon. Those scenes do have a fascinating slow-paced rhythm to them, and I think that this is one time when a film should have possibly been a bit longer to allow the time to use those scenes more effectively as a character study, rather than the outbursts of dialogue which are actually used.
What this begins to feel like is a film which wants you to write the story in the gaps, but doesn’t quite trust you to actually do it. The hints and tips explain the voids, explain the absences, and thus supplants their function. You’re left with a completely explained film whose early promise becomes a tiresome lethargy. It could have done a lot more with only a little less.