George Clooney specializes in two kinds of roles of late: rascals (see Ocean's Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen), and a-man's-gotta-do-what-a-man's-gotta-do types (Up in the Air, Michael Clayton), and sometimes both (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Burn After Reading). In The American, he's a man's-gotta-do type, an assassin, a lone gunslinger, and an artisanal gunsmith who goes by several names, including Mr. Butterfly.
He works for a slippery character named Pavel (Johan Leysen), who sends him an assassin named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) who needs a very special rifle for a job. He doesn't know what the job is, and doesn't care, but he plans to quit the business when the assignment is finished. Unknown assassins are gunning for him, so he hides out in an Italian mountain village where he meets a nosy priest (Paolo Bonacelli), drinks coffee, exercises, works on the rifle, and eases his loneliness with a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido). He's understandably paranoid, given that someone is trying to kill him.
The American is directed by Anton Corbijn (Control), and adapted from the Martin Booth novel A Very Private Gentleman. Corbijn, a photographer and music video director, has an artistic sensibility when it comes to lighting and composition. There's a beautiful visual precision to the movie. The languorous pace of the film, and the unnerving way the camera tracks through lovely, lonely landscapes, enhances its menace. It slowly and subtly builds tension throughout, creating a sense of something sinister lurking in the cobbled alleyways of Mr. Butterfly's village hideaway, in the sun-dappled forests, in a quiet (too quiet?) cafe. Some of these places are utterly benign, but the movie is disquieting, discomfiting in a way that makes the viewer uneasy, like Mr. Butterfly, of things that are too perfect, too tranquil, too picturesque.
The American is quiet, contemplative, and meticulously crafted, much as Mr. Butterfly is quiet and contemplative, and a meticulous craftsman. What is never entirely clear is what Mr. Butterfly, or the movie for that matter, is really contemplating. He says little, and little is betrayed by Clooney, who plays this role as a mostly grim-faced, scowling, strong but silent type. The American is a character study disguised as a tense yet leisurely thriller, but by the end of the film, not that much is really known about the character under study, except the obvious. This is perhaps by design. Mr. Butterfly's survival depends on his ability to be anonymous, to blend in, to disappear, but his camouflage may be too good. What he lacks, and what he longs for, is human connection, yet the movie holds him at arm's length. This may be a perfect example of a movie that is aesthetically and narratively indistinguishable from its protagonist: attractive, taciturn, anxious, polished, proficient, distant.