Some films take a while to get going. The American starts after those ones finish. The patient viewer might find several of the situations engaging, though perhaps not very original, and those with lesser waiting skills will maintain their intrigue in either the well-acted characters or the hopes that something drastic is on the horizon. A plodding plot isn’t always a bane to the assassin thriller, and while it does reduce the level of intensity, the brooding atmosphere and tangible paranoia remain compelling. An interesting reflection on the nature of professional killers aside, The American revels in its deliberate pacing. The story unfolds slowly. The protagonist’s mission develops methodically. The camera moves leisurely, careful to capture the exotic scenery and sleepy villages. The encounters happen infrequently and when they do the conversations contain more contemplation than correspondence. Even the sex scenes are unencumbered by swiftness. Perhaps this adds to the realism and beauty – or perhaps just the runtime.
A mysterious American hitman, Jack (George Clooney), travels to a quiet Italian town to lay low after an attempt on his life fails in Sweden. Once there, his employer assigns him a new job to provide a custom rifle for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), another professional killer on an assassination mission. While working on his latest assignment, Jack frequents a brothel and becomes romantically entangled with beautiful prostitute Clara (Violante Placido), a relationship forbidden in his lonely world of hired killing. As his attraction to Clara grows, Jack must weigh the risks of his newfound love with the unavoidable dangers and inescapable perils of his profession.
The American is the exact opposite of a James Bond movie (particularly the tongue-in-cheek style of Roger Moore’s contributions), where the action is almost nonexistent, the mission is miniscule and of little importance to anyone outside of the tiny city, the villains aren’t flamboyantly evil, and the mood is consistently somber. The women are slightly flirtatious and decidedly curvy, and while Jack has little charm, he does have an air of levelheadedness. Despite the completely contrasting tone and the added realism and authenticity, The American is still a typical assassin film, simply placed on the other end of the spectrum. His profession isn’t romanticized or glamorized, instead used to present moral dilemmas and reasons to disapprove of his lifestyle. He doesn’t have friends, family, or significant relationships, and must struggle with the inability to escape his craft, forbidden love and inevitable betrayal.
Everything is presented very slowly, from the conversations that seem like small talk, to the noiseless moments of contemplation, the waiting and the sleepless nights, to the completion of his weapon-making task – even to the sex scenes with a prostitute (who coincidentally likes to moan “slower”). The only benefit of this snail’s pace is the ability to learn about Jack; we’re given no information about his past, but delivered plenty of screentime to relate to his mentality and his personality. He’s not particularly likeable, but he’s all we have. Jack seems to be perpetually waiting for something to happen, just as the audience also patiently waits. The anticipation builds, but the waiting takes so long that at times the movie seems to be more about a man learning to love than a hitman working on a job, which is acceptable but misleading. Like the deceptively serene opening sequence with soft piano music, naked flesh and a picturesque snowy cabin retreat that abruptly turns into a bloodbath, The American intends to persuade the viewer that a cold-blooded killer can be a dynamic character. Unfortunately, the story is just generic enough that by the third act, few outcomes are unpredictable.
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)