The American
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Starring: George Clooney,
Paolo Bonacelli
Rated R for violence,
sexual content and nudity
1 hr., 45 min.

An icily brutal assassination sequence sets the tone for George Clooney’s morally ambiguous hit man movie The American. From that first moment, the audience never fully trusts the lead character’s intentions, nor the direction of the movie itself. But the lack of a main character to root for doesn’t sink the film — which makes up for it with a darkly intriguing, slow-burner of a plot. As many reviewers have previously noted, The American takes its cues from the existential thrillers of a different era. (Think decades before the time of ubiquitous comic-book blockbusters.) And it revels in presenting a taut, Euro-tinged feature that is happily out of step with the type of mainstream Hollywood fodder that is foisted upon summer audiences.

If Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne was a thinking man’s James Bond, then George Clooney’s unnamed hit man would be an even more cerebral, art-house version of the two. The hit man, dubbed by the many he encounters as “the butterfly man” (I won’t spoil this), wanders around the globe performing his duties with machine-like precision. The times he has to pull the trigger (rare moments in the film), he does so in an extremely calculated manner, and he appears to be faintly disgusted with himself.

Perhaps that’s the reason why he took the job assembling a custom-built rifle to be delivered to another hit person. Holed up in a small Italian village, he is able to do what he appears to love the most: carefully handcraft a piece of machinery without having to actually pull the trigger on the job. The time spent in this mountainside village is gorgeously rendered by director Anton Corbijn, and the slow pacing suits the daily rhythm of Clooney’s routine (work out, fine-tune the weapon, sip wine with a local priest) nicely.

The episodic nature of the film betrays its roots as an adaptation of Rowan Joffe’s novel A Very Private Gentleman. But since the screenplay for The American was also written by Joffe, it preserves the subtle glints of character that can be gleaned amid the quiet life led by the deadly assassin.

The few times that Clooney communicates with the outside world (by untraceable pay phone, of course) he speaks only to his boss, Pavel (Johan Leysen), who gives only a few clues to the back story of the enigmatic hit man. The most important hint, it appears, is that Pavel believes that Clooney may be “losing his edge” (one of the few predictable death knells for a character in any mob/gangster film). Clooney appears to have formed a habit of becoming romantically involved with the prostitutes he meets on assignments, which can have the ugly repercussion of ruining his cover while he’s on the job.

His foil in the Italian countryside is a local named Clara (Violante Placido) who inevitably falls for the mysterious stranger even though she suspects he has a dark secret. But unfortunately for her, a “dark secret” means that she presumes that Clooney is married, not that he is an internationally hunted hit man.

As the plot slowly unspools, there are few revelations about the characters that are overtly revealed — but plenty of poignant moments. And while the ending may feel like a bewildering conclusion to a story that feels somehow incomplete, the last few sequences have enough “butterfly symbolism” (as Slate’s Dana Stevens put it) to keep audiences guessing long after they leave theaters.