BEGINNING WITH A BANG—or, more accurately, several bangs, of both the firearm and sexual varieties—The American starts off as the film it's being advertised as: an action thriller starring a handsome movie star. But then something interesting happens: Director Anton Corbijn (Control) slams on the brakes, revealing The American to actually be a patient, even poetic character study, less an action thriller than a film that just so happens to be about someone who occasionally gets some action and has some thrills. It's a film that recognizes and appreciates silence, that's confident enough to take its time and build its tone, that's more interested in the reasons why someone would pull a trigger than in the act of them doing so.
Jack (George Clooney, as good and as likeable as ever, if a bit gruffer and mopier) makes guns, and makes them well: To exacting specifications, he crafts tools of death with the patience and skill of an old-world luthier. He's paid handsomely for his expertise and his discretion, and he doesn't ask questions that he doesn't need the answers to. On the run from some disgruntled people whom we only get to know as lethal, persistent foes, Jack lays low in a tiny Italian village, where he works on a particularly fine rifle for a mysterious bidder, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), drinks philosophic with the local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), and occasionally fucks a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido). Like Clooney's character in last year's Up in the Air, Jack is a man used to, and comfortable with, being alone; unlike that character, Jack doesn't seem to be putting on an act.
But things get progressively trickier, as they usually do—assassins begin to hunt Jack through the village's labyrinthine, cobbled alleyways; the increasingly sexy and sweet Clara begins to develop feelings for Jack; Jack's deadline for delivering the gun to Mathilde—and thus leaving town—grows ever closer. Corbijn handles all of this with a strange, hypnotic combination of serenity and inevitability—things might not end well, one senses, but there's a slow beauty to watching The American's story carefully unwind itself. True, there are gunshots fired in The American, but it's also a film that wades through a grim sort of higher philosophy: "You cannot doubt the existence of Hell; you live in it," Father Benedetto informs the sad-eyed Jack, and it's only a matter of time until Clara, happening upon a picturesque stream in the countryside, happily exclaims that she and Jack have discovered paradise.
No doubt some audiences will yawn and doze through The American, then walk out feeling jilted they didn't get the spy thriller being advertised. Most, though, will find the film to be a more than pleasant surprise—it's not the movie it's being advertised as, sure. But it's something even better.