Talk about a vote loser. The moody existential thriller The American has barely started before it threatens to abort whatever sympathy an audience is likely to be incubating. The film opens in wintry Sweden where a man and a woman, having spent a romantic night together, are trekking across a snowbound field. Suddenly they are ambushed, but the man, with swift efficiency, shoots dead their two assailants. He tells the woman to go and fetch the police, and as she turns away he kills her, too, with a bullet to the back of the head. At first one assumes she has treacherously led him into the ambush – but it soon emerges that the man just didn't want any witnesses.
The murder of a defenceless woman might not register in the general scheme of a violent amoral thriller, but it matters here because we proceed to spend the rest of the film in the killer's company. And all that's holding us back from complete repugnance is that he's played by George Clooney. He is "Jack", aka "Edward", aka "Mr Butterfly", a professional death-dealer who's on the run from something, or someone. From Sweden he relocates to Italy, where his hatchet-faced handler dispatches him to a medieval hilltop town in Abruzzo, the mountainous region east of Rome. "Don't make any friends, Jack. You used to know that." So Jack mooches about the winding cobbled streets looking cool in his shades, or does exercises on the floor of the monkish room he has rented.
For a while this holds a slow-burning intrigue, and the director Anton Corbijn frames his shots with the same precision and elegance he brought to bear on his terrific debut feature, Control, about Joy Division and Ian Curtis. Director and protagonist look to be in close alignment with one another – Jack's "other" job is as a photographer, like Corbijn, and they both accept the professional necessity of waiting around. If you have to cool your heels, you may as well do it in lovely surroundings, and the cinematographer Martin Ruhe renders the ancient town in suggestive shades of blue-black, olive and gunmetal. But once the story pricks its enigmatic bubble of watchfulness and obliges Jack to meet people, its grip begins to loosen. First of all there's the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who offers the stranger philosophical aperçus over an espresso or during highly symbolic strolls through the cemetery: "You cannot doubt the existence of hell," he tells Jack. "You live in it." Conveniently, this one-horse town also contains a brothel where Jack gets his rocks off – sorry, glimpses a redemptive love in the arms of a young prostitute named Clara (played by the beautiful Violante Placido – and was ever a beauty more paradoxically named?).
The script, adapted by Rowan Joffe from Martin Booth's novel, does not overstrain for authenticity. Corbijn is intent on conjuring a mood of romantic fatalism, Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 Le Samourai being his most obvious model, and Clooney, if not managing the impenetrable suavity of Alain Delon, at least puts in a handsome shift as the Tough Guy Who Never Smiles. Considerations of style, however, carry us only so far, and after a while the carelessness with plausibility, and even with common sense, feels arrogant.
When Jack makes contact with a mysterious hitwoman (Thekla Reuten) for whom he will custom-build a high-velocity rifle, their side-of-the-mouth conversation at a cafe table sounds like a parody of international assassins' code. Later, Jack is stalked through the town at night by a gunman and, following a shoot-out, two men end up dead. But do we see the streets festooned with crime-scene tape the next day, or the police combing the area for the killer? We do not. Nothing that happens in this town seems to cause surprise, and nobody (apart from the priest) shows the slightest curiosity about the mysterious American in their midst. When Jack gets down to crafting the commissioned rifle in his workshop he shrewdly muffles his metallic banging beneath the loud tolls of the church bell, but then you think: what's with the secrecy? He could be doing anything in there and it wouldn't raise an eyebrow.
The American, despite its name, is distinctly European in its pace (slow) and outlook (bleak), and it wears its lack of thrills almost as a badge of honour. One keeps waiting for things to happen, and by the time something actually does most of the suspense has drained away. The plotting is so cursory that you can see from where the danger threatens; indeed, it looks so obvious you think Corbijn is playing an elaborate bluff, but no, the plot's baddie turns out to be exactly the one you'd expect. It would be intolerable if every thriller was as hectic and tightly wound as a Bourne movie, but this goes too far in the other direction. Its movement isn't so much ponderous as arthritic, and its thrill quotient is virtually nil.
As for Clooney, he has very deliberately dulled his star sheen for this role. He's good at loners – the corporate downsizer of Up in the Air is one of his best – but loners require something to play off, even if it's just to indicate how alone they are. Corbijn is plainly more interested in photographing his star than in the psychology of character. Perhaps, he would have been better off publishing an album of stills: it would have roughly the same emotional effect, without the moral queasiness of that woman's brutal elimination.