Very quickly, let me get out of this way. If you can't watch a 10-minute YouTube video without your attention wandering, or if you can't find it in yourself to read a 7-8 paragraph review of films, instead choosing to read the last line and relying on the star/numerical rating to guide you, do not watch this film. For the rest of you, who can be patient with films, this is one of the most rewarding movies released for you. Let me tell you why.
The title of this one is almost ironic - the film might be about an American, and starring one of the most recognisable American actors, but it is as un-American a film as it could be. Director Anton Corbijn, famous for designing the U2 documentaries and their soundscapes, and recently for the much praised Control, exercises unimaginable restraint and patience to create a film with a muted palette to the point where you can feel what the lead character feels.
The sound, the action, even the dialogues are dialed down to as low as he could take them, and provide a sense of loneliness and heightened awareness all at the same time, giving us an idea of what it feels like to be aware at all times that you are hunted. As the movie opens, we see Jack (Clooney) abandon his current situation with a cool and methodical detachment, get a new assignment and help from an old associate to disappear, and then dive down the Italian countryside.
Within those few minutes, the feeling that this is routine, the he regularly hides like this trusting no one, is established with alarming familiarity. As he ends up in a small Italian town, we start noticing the lack of sound. There is no noise, no background music. Almost immediately you begin to hear whatever sound there is very sharply. A card stopping, a door opening, a spoon falling.
We are being given an incredible look into the mind of a dangerous man - one whose profession and the dangers it entails have necessitated him blocking out all sounds and listen only for the sounds that matter, so that he can quickly judge them and act swiftly.
As Jack receives his assignment, we learn that he is not just a hired gun, but also an expert in building high-end custom weapons. As he gets to work on the order he receives from a local woman Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), we see some themes emerge. His time spent with a local prostitute Clara (Violante Placido) is often bathed in over-saturated lights, giving stark contrast to him spending time with Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who doesn't believe him when he says he isn't good with machines.
Clooney the actor is in this film, not Clooney the magnetic star, and as he portrays Jack, we see the extraordinary talent this man has. Never entirely comfortable with people around him, and supremely calm and collected when working with weapons, Clooney plays Jack as a careful man forced to live in the circumstances he is in, and yet never jumpy.
He is never off-screen for more than a few moments, and carries the whole film with simply his performance, in which he is ably helped by Martin Ruhe, the cinematographer who makes every frame beautiful to behold. It helps that along with the director, Ruhe is a master at building tension with his work, because the film has very sudden and violent action, appropriate to the themes of the movie. Endless shots and explosions are eschewed for scenes where guns are brought out, a shot is fired, and a person is dead.
The tension is not in the build-up either - it is in the very abrupt visceral moment. As Jack nears the end of his career and contemplates his final judgment in this small town, he lives through the cycle of violence again and again. Which is probably the one small weak link in the film.
The detachment serves to keep us from knowing the characters, so the question whether this is purgatory or people waiting for it never becomes clear. The overarching themes of the film do not translate with an emotional weight, and that keeps the movie from attaining greatness.
Regardless, this is a strong film and worthy of a good, patient watch. For all its muted action, you will walk out with an insane buzz in your brain, and the knowledge that you have watched the most un-American action film in years.