It is oft preached that the marketing of a film is not supposed to factor into a film review and rest assured it will not affect this one. However, I do have a bone to pick with that notion because it does ask that the film reviewer be somewhat super-human and wipe all preceding knowledge of the film from their brain. An instruction as futile as when a judge asks a jury to disregard a certain piece of evidence. I know said thing and can’t un-know it. Having said all that it is extraordinarily disappointing that The American is packaged in its trailer as something it is not. However, its failing as a film and its false advertising are mutually exclusive. It does not work as what it is based on those given circumstances not based on what it was sold to be.
What The American turns out to be is a deliberately paced, OK, slow film, which is a character study and not an action film in the mold of James Bond or the Bourne series. However, in this thoughtful character study several facets come up short and when several pieces are just a little below par the whole suffers.
I am not one who wants to impose a moderate to fast pace on every film. Each film needs to find its own rhythm like a piece of music. However, some films do not find it going either too fast or too slow. So there is no aversion to a slow-moving tale here especially considering my fondness for the more than seven-hour-long Satantango, what that film has going for it was that it needs its time and The American does not. There are silences for the sake of silences, moments of thought where we can’t read the subject and scenes that could easily be shorter or excised altogether.
One way in which this film overstays its welcome is by having too many scenes where we go back and forth between Jack and Mathilde and Jack and Clara as if his affections are somehow torn when we know if he’s going to be drawn to anyone it’ll be the latter. This is the least of the film’s issues however.
The relationship with Father Benedetto also becomes ultimately unsatisfying. First, it seems it will be a one time encounter. Then it becomes a a daily ritual but the decision to go back and see him again isn’t made on screen. The meetings, which are several, in the end serve almost no purpose the priest confesses a secret to Jack but not the other way around. In the end Jack just says “Sorry, Father” after the priest witnesses his “profession” but what does that serve? It was already a given that Jack was tired of this life and wanted out so ultimately the whole relationship serves no function in the plot.
As intimated above there are in this film beats you could drive a bus through, long pauses for us to watch mainly Clooney thinking, however, rarely can we glean anything off his stone-faced expression, which is fine as long as pace doesn’t suffer. To watch him work methodically and expertly on his munitions are some of the best moments this film has to offer playing into the fascination we can have with watching people simply behave as has been demonstrated in countless films. The issues begin when the actions stop and we watch a character think. If we don’t catch a glimmer of what that notion is it is time wasted on the screen, and far too much time in this film is wasted.
The smallest things could’ve been done to tighten the edit. One small example: Jack makes repeated calls from phone booths to his contact. Each time he does we must hear the phone ringing and rarely if ever do we L-cut. We sit and watch and wait for the phone to be answered, if there is no dramatic reason, no significance attached to the continued ringing of the phone so why must we sit there and watch it and listen to it?In the end the plot is more than a bit contrived as the target of the hit is revealed. The end of the film is even more contrived and the coup de grace of contrivance is that we must wait for a butterfly, an animal which through the language of this film has become synonymous with our protagonist, flutter off the frame for the film to end.
The one thing that can be said in favor of The American without reservation is that it does get one talking afterward, which few films do anymore but there are far too many things that keep it from reaching its potential.