The American is about a character you know almost nothing about. Jack or Edward (George Clooney) is more of a mystery than a character in that way, sent to Italy for one last job, whatever that may be. It’s never very clear.
Despite this, we feel his tension and paranoia. The film uses silence brilliantly, nothing extravagant or overdone. It spends a few minutes panning on Clooney as he walks these Italian streets, the viewer not knowing where he’s even going, and then bang. It’s a scooter backfiring. It works because that silence was unnerving and unsettling. It’s not expected, and with one sound, the audience enters Clooney’s world.
For what seems to be a movie assassin, working for who knows who, Clooney is hardly standard. He’s quiet, reserved, and even calm, or at least that’s his demeanor. Underneath he’s paranoid, terrified that everyone is out to get him. His experiences haunt everything he does, even his sleep. A falling book suddenly becomes reason to snap himself up in the middle of the night, gun in hand, convinced someone is shooting. The fact that he even sleeps with his gun in hand is a secondary detail.
Dutch director Anton Corbjin plays with the audience as much as the script plays with Clooney’s character. It establishes a sense of familiarity, utilizing and then re-utilizing familiar views and set-ups to make the audience comfortable. This is not an easy comfort though, this is an established reality where anything could go wrong and someone is always watching. The familiarity of the coffee shop is flipped upside down as someone watches from across the street, this despite no previous event happening there besides Clooney taking a few sips.
American is that grand slow build, shot almost classically in that edits seem minimal even when they’re not. The camera is static, never wavering around in desperation to create tension. It doesn’t need to. Those medium shots of Clooney’s face almost staring aimlessly feel genuine; he’s accessing his surroundings, following his own insecurities because of where life has taken him.
He only seems calm making a gun for what appears to be some type of client, in his own domain and in control of what he does. That changes when he meets Clara (Violante Placido), a prostitute who he initially sees as an escape and a release. Their relationship blossoms and he finds meaning in his life beyond the killing.
The American doesn’t stop to explain what is is doing, making it more intriguing than anything else. There is not traditional “audience character,” the one saddled with explaining everything away. Everyone here is natural and believable, and that might be the most terrifying part of all.
This beautiful film, with the rolling hills of a small Italian village and winding roads, could hardly have been treated better by Universal. The VC-1 codec utilized here has little to do other than preserve the startling level of detail since the grain structure of the film is so minimal as to barely be noticeable. There are no instances where this looks artificial or digital, the film-like nature preserved with no faults from this encode.
The height of everything this looker produces are those long views of the mountainside village, so vividly rendered the intricacies of the roofs are clear and distinct from what amounts to miles away. Forested areas characters enjoy on picnics are rendered to absolute perfection, trees, leaves, tall grass, and rocks individualized. Facial definition is stunning, rarely faltering except for those scenes under dim conditions, an inadvertent nighttime wake-up call on Clooney’s part a rare moment of smoothness. This movie makes a character out of Clooney’s aging face, those wrinkles and pores as important to the character as his frozen face while in deep thought.
Flesh tones take on the hues of the lighting around them, veering excessively warm to absurdly cool. The American is hardly a stranger to the overwhelming orange and teal palette, but also works in-between. The desaturated color that dominates much of the movie is appealing to the eye, the gray roads and white concrete buildings stunning in their purity even without color. Saturation only comes into this character’s life when near a small river, the screen lighting up with a wonderful array of greens and yellows.
Where it falters are the black levels, mundane and barely sufficient. They exist more in the realm of gray, never generating the depth that would spring this film to added life visually. That could be intent too, matching that meager array of color with equally dim black levels to give Jack/Edward a faded appearance of sorts. Regardless, it’s that slight eyesore in an otherwise assault of perfection.
For a movie so intent on remaining simple and quiet, there are moments of aural superiority here for this DTS-HD mix to latch onto. As Clooney arrives in a train station early, the bustling platform has patrons chattering about, enveloping the sound field appropriately. It leaves the center clear and distinct, never lost amongst the masses. There’s a market scene too that does much the same, even livelier this time with a heftier surround presence.
In terms of raw power, a brief chase scene kicks off at 1:01:40, vehicles passing through the stereos to start before gunfire begins shattering windows. Bullets track appropriately front to back, the effect superb and believable.
The audio strikes that grand balance between the mostly subdued, whisper-like dialogue and briefly rousing action. Everything is perfectly calibrated, and the few intentional scares are not overwhelming, but enough for a brief jolt.
A commentary comes together from director Anton Corbijn, followed by some deleted scenes. Journey to Redemption is a typical 10-minute making of. Some BD-Live support is tossed in along with some trailers.