The options could hardly be starker for Labor Day movie-goers. On one hand, there's the blood-stained Machete, which seems to revel in the number of body-parts it dismembers for the pleasure of audiences. And, of course, there's also that European-tinged, art-house hitman movie with the relatively unassuming poster of George Clooney furrowing his brow. What's that one about, exactly? It appears that nearly half of our nation's finest critics lost their patience with the slow-burning film before trying to figure that out.
The film itself, directed by 2007's Control helmer, Anton Corbijn, takes its cues from Michelangelo Antonioni's 1975 landmark The Passenger and builds upon the book it's adapted from, Martin Booth's A Very Private Gentleman. It follows an international hitman (George Clooney) whose real name is unimportant , and who quietly delivers all that's expected of him (the closest thing to a spoiler is that the film is fraught with "butterfly symbolism"). Critics, for their part, couldn't quite place in which decade the movie belongs:
- 'Like Camus' The Stranger and Pulp Novels in the '50s and '60s' remarks NPR's David Edelstein, who found the film brimming with existential angst. "On every substantive level, The American is ridiculous...But I enjoyed it anyway. It takes you back to an era of European angst-ridden art thrillers in which the plotting was almost abstract. The American is, well, the least American action movie in years."
- Conjures 'the Understated Suspense Films of the 1970's' notes The Atlantic's Christopher Orr. The spare movie, helmed by a director notable for shooting U2's album covers, never really amounts "to a great deal." And "Corbijn, moreover, films the proceedings so gorgeously--the hill-nestled townlets, the sun-dappled streams--that one might be forgiven for thinking that a life of hiding out from Swedish contract killers is not such a bad life after all."
- 'A James Bond Fantasy for Very Patient Europhiles' finds Slate's generally satisfied reviewer Dana Stevens. "If you take it as a latter-day, Zen spaghetti Western, with Clooney as the Man With No Name," it can easily be forgiven its faults. "It's a testament to Corbijn's directorial gifts that a movie featuring 'one last job,' a taciturn loner, and a hooker with a heart of gold could feel as crisp and unusual as The American."
- 'Consider It Akin to the Phantasmagoric Bores of the 1960s and '70s' writes Kyle Smith at The New York Post who quipped that "this might be the first time I've ever sat in a multiplex where the air conditioning was louder than the movie." The reviewer, who gave the film one star out of five, didn't take kindly to its "extravagantly inert and deeply empty" aesthetic and art-house pretensions. And, "we never learn anything about anyone's motivations. How European!"
- 'Feels Like a Movie Made By a Filmmaker Who Hasn't Been to the Movies Since the '70s' and Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek considers this a high compliment. "This is a character study of a man who, it first appears, has no center -- he finds that center even as we do, and watching Clooney wander toward his character's lost self is one of the great pleasures of the movie."