By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn September 7, 2010 at 6:27AM
It was a nice surprise to see that "The American" beat out "Machete" for the number one slot at the box office last weekend. Although I haven't seen "Machete" and may actually enjoy it, the idea that a knowingly crass exploitation movie took second place beneath Anton Corbijn's patient, doggedly non-commercial thriller brings the summer movie season to a close on an unexpectedly smart note. It would appear that somebody got tricked. If word of mouth means anything, "The American" will fall fast, but at least it had the chance to stand up in the first place.
I saw "The American" at an early evening screening in Union Square, where most of the packed room expressed their dissatisfaction in the lobby afterward. "It was quiet, too quiet," I overheard someone say. "Also slow, and a bit boring." But another patron seemed to approach a better analysis of the movie's effect, perhaps by accident: "It was interesting because it was really boring," he said.
"Boring," of course, often becomes the go-to buzz word among casual moviegoers for artier fare that requires patience and intellectual involvement on the part of the audience. "The American" certainly does require that, hovering on the slightest tics of George Clooney's sunken expression (best described as "Syriana" 2.0) to provide hints as to the nature of his character, a guilt-ridden hitman slowly losing his edge. Scant dialogue serves to advance the plot; instead, Clooney engages in whispery chatter with the local priest of the small Italian villa where he shows up for a job, and empty pillow talk with some prostitutes.
It's a textbook thriller in the sense that everything revolves around a methodical build-up, with a pay-off that's more afterthought than climax. At the same time, "The American" takes such a leisurely approach to its story that it barely even has one at all. The excitement of the movie comes from its technical polish. Focus on the delicacy of Corbijn's camera placement for the duration of the running time and "The American" does have plenty of exciting, eerily unsettling scenes. Consider it a mini-masterclass in the art of mise-en-scene: One shot finds Clooney's character hiding a gun inside a picnic basket, unsure of his next move, while his unsuspecting date sprawls out in the sun a few inches away -- things don't get much more tense than that.
A colleague compared "The American" to a Melville film, and the movie does sport a similar slow-burn approach to the thriller genre, which makes it decidedly classical. At the same time, it has no real political or social dimension. Each scene isn't really about anything beyond the impressive nature of its construction. The theme of Catholic forgiveness feels rather forced, particularly since it chiefly serves to deliver the movie's only punchline. Since the hitman has no significant backstory, he's basically just a tool, if an effective one, and has no apparent ideological concerns.
But while "The American" ends up as a minor achievement for all the major forces involved, it's nonetheless a substantial footnote: For the skill of its direction, the subtleties of its star, and the sheer oddity of its fleeting theatrical triumph.