Jack (George Clooney), a gunsmith and contract killer, and his lover, Ingrid (Irina Björklund), are relaxing in Sweden. Jack becomes alarmed by a trail of footprints in the snow and pulls Ingrid towards shelter. Sniper gunshots ring out. Ingrid sees Jack pull a gun from his pocket and shoot the sniper. Knowing his identity is in jeopardy, and with little hesitation, Jack shoots and kills Ingrid. He flees to Rome and contacts his handler, Pavel (Johan Leysen), who insists that Jack cannot stay in Rome. Pavel sends him to Castelvecchio, a small town in the mountains of Abruzzo. Jack becomes nervous and, disposing of the cell phone Pavel gave him, goes to nearby Castel del Monte, Abruzzo, instead.
While in Abruzzo, Jack contacts Pavel, who sets him up with another job. He meets Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), who wants him to build a custom sniper rifle for an assassination. He also begins patronizing a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), and they begin a relationship separate from her business duties. Jack meets with Mathilde to test the weapon. She is impressed by the craftsmanship, but asks him to make a few more adjustments. Later, Jack realizes that he is being followed by an assassin from Sweden, whom he kills.
Jack is tormented by dreams of the events in Sweden and regrets killing Ingrid. His friendship and conversations with a local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), encourage him to question his life choices. Both Mathilde and Clara notice Jack's association with butterflies, Mathilde by his expertise in endangered butterflies and Clara by his prominent tattoo. When Father Benedetto tells Jack he senses he lives in a special kind of hell, "a place without love", Jack starts to let himself feel love for Clara, and envisions a life with her.
Jack talks to Pavel one last time — asking how the Swedes have found him. In his growing fear, he even suspects Clara when he discovers a small pistol in her purse. He questions Clara about the gun and is satisfied with her explanation (to defend herself, since there have been newspaper reports of murdered prostitutes).
Jack agrees to deliver the weapon to Mathilde as his last job, but at the last moment he opens the briefcase and sabotages the rifle. At the drop-off, Jack becomes suspicious that Mathilde plans to kill him. Before anything can happen, a busload of school children arrives. Mathilde gives Jack his payment — a thick envelope full of cash — and the two separate. As Mathilde drives away, Pavel contacts her and asks if she has killed Jack. She tells him she has not, but says she is following him and will kill him.
Clara meets Jack at a religious procession in town. Jack asks her to go away with him and she agrees. Mathilde tries to shoot Jack from a nearby rooftop, but the sabotaged rifle explodes in her face. Seeing Mathilde fall from the roof, Jack gives Clara the envelope full of cash and tells her to go to a river where they had picniced and wait for him. He runs to Mathilde, who is dying on the pavement, and discovers that she also works for Pavel.
As Jack goes to meet Clara, he hears Pavel behind him. They exchange gunfire and Pavel drops dead. As Jack drives to meet Clara at the river, he feels his abdomen and realizes he has been shot. Jack arrives at the picnic spot and as he sees Clara, he collapses. Clara screams and runs to the car. A white butterfly flits skyward from Jack's car.George Clooney as Jack/Edward
Violante Placido as Clara
Thekla Reuten as Mathilde
Paolo Bonacelli as Father Benedetto
Irina Björklund as Ingrid
Johan Leysen as Pavel
Filippo Timi as Fabio
Anna Foglietta as Anna
Björn Granath as the Swedish Assassin
Filming began in September 2009 and took place in Castel del Monte, Sulmona, Castelvecchio Calvisio, Calascio and Campo Imperatore in the Province of L'Aquila (Abruzzo); in Rome, and in Östersund, Jämtland and other locations. As the Clooney character drives from Rome to Castel del Monte, there is an impressively long drive through the 4600-meter long San Domenico Tunnel (Galleria San Domenico) that is between the exits of Pescina and Cocullo on the A25 highway that connects Rome to Torano and Pescara. The car driven by Jack in the movie is a Fiat Tempra with Pescara licence plates.
The film's "most romantic moment", according to director Anton Corbijn—when Jack takes Clara to a restaurant of her choice, their "actual date"—was filmed at a restaurant in Pacentro, Italy, near Sulmona. The comic-acting waiter in this restaurant scene was directed to stand in front of a two-bulb lamp fixture so that he appeared to have "devil's horns". Photographs on the restaurant's walls are reportedly of all the lovers of an early-20th-century poet from the town. Clara orders Montepulciano d'Abruzzo wine for the dinner, and Corbijn said the film's company enjoyed many of the fine wines of the region during the months of production there.
The film score was written and composed by German singer-songwriter (and longtime friend of Corbijn) Herbert Grönemeyer. A 1967 song called "Window of My Eyes" by the Dutch blues band Cuby & the Blizzards is played over the ending credits. The aria "Un bel dì vedremo" ("One fine day we'll see") from Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly can be heard in the background of one scene, and "Tu vuò fà l'americano" in another. In another scene the Italian song "La Bambola" by Patty Pravo plays.
Once Upon a Time in the West, with Henry Fonda facing off as villain in a gunfight, is playing on a television on the back wall of a modest restaurant where Jack has been eating. In the DVD commentary, Corbijn notes this homage and says the American Western—and more specifically the Italian-American spaghetti westerns by Leone and others—were explicit models for The American. Corbijn also notes the Ennio Morricone scores made famous in Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and other films. Speaking of the narrow, labyrinthine streets of the Italian hill towns where much of the action of The American occurs, Corbijn says he was thinking, in filming, of the streets of Venice and the way they appeared in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973).
Large segments of the dialogue between Jack and Clara are taken verbatim from Graham Greene's novel The Honorary Consul.
The first official poster was released on June 17, 2010. The first trailer was attached to Robin Hood and the second official trailer on June 19, 2010, and was attached to Jonah Hex, Grown Ups, Inception and The Other Guys.
The film grossed US$13.1 million, opening at number 1, ahead of Machete, which grossed US$11.4 million on the Labor Day weekend. The American grossed a total of US$67,876,281 worldwide—US$35,606,376 in North America and US$32,269,905 in other territories.
The American received a positive response from critics, garnering a 66% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 211 reviews with an average score of 6.5/10. Its consensus states: "As beautifully shot as it is emotionally restrained, The American is an unusually divisive spy thriller—and one that rests on an unusually subdued performance from George Clooney." Similarly, another review aggregator, Metacritic calculated an average score of 61 based on 36 reviews.
Rolling Stone's Peter Travers gave the film two-and-a-half stars, writing that director Anton Corbijn "holds his film to a steady, often glacial pace", and that the result is of "startling austerity". Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, writing, "Here is a gripping film with the focus of a Japanese drama, an impenetrable character to equal Alain Delon's in Le Samouraï, by Jean-Pierre Melville." Leonard Maltin called it a "slowly paced, European-style mood piece, short on dialogue and action and long on atmosphere".
Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film a D- rating. This was attributed to audience disappointment after the film was marketed as being more action-oriented.
The film was released on DVD and Blu-ray on December 28, 2010.