By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; C01
In "The American," George Clooney brings his most somber, furrowed game face to the role of a hit man named Jack, who as the movie opens finds himself ambushed on an isolated, ice-covered Swedish lake. The odd gunshot notwithstanding, the scene transpires in almost complete silence. It turns out that both the setting and the soundtrack adequately anticipate the chilly study in solitude and emptiness that proceeds to unfold.
Directed by Anton Corbijn from a book by Martin Booth, "The American" is an action thriller that adamantly refuses to deliver action or thrills, instead engaging in a brand of arty, self-conscious formalism rarely seen outside repertory theaters or cinema-studies classrooms.
On that basis alone, "The American" presents a fascinating, even welcome experiment in whether movie audiences gorged on a steady diet of Apatow and "Avatar" can slow their metabolisms down enough for Antonioni. It's the work of that 1970s Italian auteur -- famous for his meticulously composed frames but maddeningly opaque approach to narrative -- that this film's meditative pacing, wide-open landscapes and isolated, resolutely enigmatic protagonist most readily evoke.
Still, while cinema-lovers can cheer a director willing to buck the fashion for sensory overload and overwhelming stimulation, "The American" can't be called a success. Booth's story, adapted for the screen by Rowan Joffe, ultimately can't bear the weight of such an overworked film, one that, despite its sleek lines and a seductive polish, sags under a fatally ponderous tone. As for Clooney, he's been stripped of the self-deprecating character tics that made even his dramatic roles in "Michael Clayton" and "Up in the Air" such restrained but somehow extravagant joys to behold; here he plays someone so controlled and closed-off that he's virtually inert.
Once Jack dispatches his would-be foes in Scandinavia, he departs for Italy, where his boss (Johan Leysen) suggests he lay low in one of Abruzzo's medieval hill towns and await orders. Fans hoping to find Clooney partaking of Italy's sensuous pleasures and, on the way, inner peace ("Eat, Pray, Shoot"?) will be sorely disappointed to find their heartthrob leading a monastic existence of exercise, vigilance and visits to local cafes in scenes that could easily end either in an assassination or impromptu filming of a Nespresso commercial.
When Jack starts work on a high-test rifle for a gorgeous client named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), he also begins to visit a nearby brothel, striking up a carnal friendship with Clara (Violante Placido), whose hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold character rhymes note for note with Jack's quiet-but-honorable-loner. (American audiences won't recognize "The American's" supporting players, but its gallery of attractive new European faces surely counts as one of the film's greatest strengths.)
That "The American" traffics in such well-worn character types could be forgiven if the filmmakers gave them even the gentlest of twists. But Corbijn -- a former music video director who made a promising debut in 2007 with the equally elegant Joy Division biopic, "Control" -- plays it straight, treating Jack's every move and glance with fetishistic reverence. After such a methodical succession of carefully orchestrated but bloodless tableaux, "The American" finally asks the audience to care -- much too late and with way too little by way of emotional investment.
Do the movies really need yet another hit man embarking on one last job before retiring into peaceful domesticity? Do they need another thug portrayed as a disciplined craftsman with the soul of an artist (in this case, expressed through a love of butterflies)? At one point in "The American," the filmmakers pay homage to Sergio Leone, in a scene where "Once Upon a Time in the West" plays on TV in a bar. The reference is logical but unearned. What Leone understood, and Corbijn is still learning, is how to deploy the hoariest archetypes and genre conventions in ways that make even pulp entertainment artful and art entertaining.
(103 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, sexual content and nudity.