By KARINA MITCHELL
NEW YORK (CBS) You're either going to love this movie, or leave feeling incredibly frustrated, depending on how much patience you have and how much you love art films.
For those who possess both aforementioned traits, the reward is a thoroughly minimalist approach to filmmaking and the chance to savor a supremely pure performance from the film's star, George Clooney, who lets his character's vulnerability and his flaws shine through.
Based on the novel "A Very Private Gentleman" by Martin Booth and billed as a suspense thriller, "The American" is unlike any conventional film in that genre. There are no high-voltage fight sequences, explosions or car chases. Instead, it is a stylized, in-depth character study, carefully constructed according to European sensibilities, but borrowing a guise that can best be described as a western with strong Italian overtones, very much like the spaghetti western it spoofs in one scene.
Director Anton Corbijn ("Control") was influenced by the westerns he watched growing up and was captivated by the concept of the loner who arrives unannounced into a quiet town in search of solitude.
He connects with a couple of people, but eventually must succumb to the reason that brought him there in the first place. It's this fascination that breathes life into the plot of "The American."
Corbijn also got his start as a successful portrait photographer, a fact not easily lost on the audience. Spectacular shots of Abruzzo, a mountainous region east of Rome, spreading all the way to the Adriatic Sea (an area devastated by an earthquake in 2009) are breathtaking and the scenery, so vibrant and rich, assumes a character all its own, a stark contrast to the sparse dialogue and action that distinguish this Focus Features film.
Philanthropic to the core, Clooney was mindful of the fact that in addition to the money spent on the production and filming in the region, shooting there might spur tourism and help boost the region economically, In fact, the mayor and people of Sulmona, one of the areas where filming took place, welcomed the predominantly Italian cast and crew with open arms. Also probably not coincidental is the fact that many of the spaghetti westerns from the '50s were filmed in Abruzzo and the surrounding towns with their hilly terrain.
Clooney's character is Jack, a trained assassin whose last job in Sweden gets botched. Constantly on the move, he retreats to the Italian countryside to seek solitude and seemingly, a respite from his tormented existence as a killer always looking over his shoulder, anticipating the enemy's touch.
There, he takes on an assignment to craft a specialty rifle for a mysterious woman, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). Throughout the first part of the film, there is little to give any sense of who Jack is, or where he came from. Monosyllables with a sprinkling of occasional short sentences permeate the film.
While on his sabbatical in the mountains of Abruzzo, he befriends a local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who wants to save his soul from sins of which he has no idea. He also pursues an affair with a local prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido). Slowly (and I do mean slowly) their liaison turns to romance, but it is then that Jack's tumultuous past comes back to haunt him.
What some might find hard to get past are the very things that make this film stand apart. It is as far from a Hollywood production as you can get. Long scenes with no dialogue flow into one other from the get go and can get tedious if you do not make a connection with the character early on. For almost the entire first hour, the story revolves around setting up Clooney's character in Italy and sending him to work, meticulously manufacturing a rifle that he eerily recognizes may land him in harm's way.
Still, Clooney is in his element, turning in a first-rate performance, as the brooding, soul-searching criminal, who seeks to escape his inner reality. Without words to echo the emotions he seeks to express, he relies primarily on understated subtlety - the look in his eye, a faint flicker of a smile from the corner of his mouth, a nod from that perfectly chiseled chin - to crescendo the heightened suspense and emotion the film builds towards, climaxing in a way that may not be unique, but is reflected in an incomparably unique way.
MPAA Rating: R (violence, sexual content and nudity)
Run Time: 105m