' ' Cinema Romantico: Hit Man

Monday, June 24, 2024

Hit Man

The comedian Chris Rock once joked that “When you meet somebody for the first time, you’re not meeting them, you’re meeting their representative,” a keen observation that Richard Linklater’s new movie “Hit Man” manifests not just to a degree but in a way I never would have thought possible. In adapting Skip Hollandsworth’s Texas Monthly profile of Gary Johnson, a fake contract killer, Linklater has improbably uncovered the perfect vehicle to explore the tenuous nature of love and relationships, the difficulty in truly understanding another person, to paraphrase a character from a different Richard Linklater movie, the struggle not simply to know another person but know one’s own self. Material, in other words, that would have seemed designed to elicit an action-thriller, or even a drama, instead becomes a subversive romantic comedy. 

Based very loosely on the real story, Glen Powell stars as Gary Johnson, a psychology professor in New Orleans who moonlights parttime for the city’s police department as one of the nondescript guys in the van during sting operations meant to nab people looking to hire a hit man. When the op’s lead undercover detective Jasper (Austin Amelio) is suspended, Gary is suddenly thrust into the role, coached up by Jasper in the front seat of a car in which the two men are deliberately costumed to appear as opposites, like the disparate halves of a movie poster showing the hero and his geeky sidekick. Speedwalking to a clandestine meeting with a man seeking a hit on his wife, trying to psyche himself up, you wonder how Gary can play the part, yet in the next cut, he is. One second, he’s Gary, the next he’s a Hit Man. Rather than see him metamorphose by removing his Dwight Schrute glasses like Clark Kent removing his black horn rims, it has already happened, as if it has always lurked inside. In a key conversation with his ex-wife (Molly Bernard), we learn of Gary’s struggle to open up, and his undercover success stemming from becoming just what the other person needs him to be suggests a delightful, disturbing funhouse version of that MIA emotional availability. 

Aided by his psychology background, Gary proves a natural master of disguise as we see him ensnaring a variety of clients through an assortment of costumes, wigs, even accents, each one deftly played by Powell. It is remarkable how effortlessly he shapeshifts, never evincing wild swings of persona, a la Val Kilmer in “The Saint,” but grounding them in a subtle realism while he simultaneously, almost without us, the audience, noticing, allows Gary to quietly slip away, bit by bit. That transition begins in earnest when he meets Madison Masters (Adria Arjona) by pretending to be a man named Ron she has hired to kill her abusive husband. Ron is dressed like a heartthrob, carries himself like a heartthrob, and essentially becomes one when he tells Madison to walk away and use her money to buy a new life. She does, but that new life also involves a relationship with Ron, and that relationship comes under scrutiny both when Jasper discovers it and Madison’s husband winds up dead. 

Few filmmakers excel at the art of conversation quite like Linklater. Putting Gary, er, Ron and Madison in a diner booth for their first encounter, it’s mostly shot-reverse shots crackling with a giddy tension as they feel one another out while for their follow-up meeting, a walk and talk in the park, the camera drifts along with the two characters as they stay in the same frame, almost imperceptibly fluttering back and forth even as it drifts closer to them, underscoring with each movement how they move toward one another and then ever so slightly away so they can you practically feel the spark between them. It’s as hot, really, as the hot scenes to follow. And yet, for all the resplendent carnal knowledge, each moment is infused with dislocation and tension. 

Madison never becomes as deep a character as Gary, though this is by design, withholding so that we only know her as well as he does and always wonder what she might truly be capable of, adding a second layer unknowability to a relationship based on a lie. Gary admits this in his recurring voiceovers that Powell shrewdly always recites in his Gary voice rather than his Ron voice, not so much evincing a split personality as a person aware he is playing a role. And that is the emergent nature of their relationship, taking the idea of role-playing to a whole other level, brought home in an electrifying sequence in which the two are forced to playact to save their skins. The excitement in their airs is palpable, as palpable as it is in the actors, and in moment like this, burying yourself in the part opens up into something three-dimensional, moviemaking, lovemaking, all an earnest put-on that is hard to resist. 

It should be noted that “Hit Man” was distributed by Netflix and if you watch it at home, as I did, it comes coated in the streaming giant’s patented low-rent sheen. I can’t say whether it’s like that on the big screen, but either way, it’s a possible portent of our streaming future where even good movies look like TV. Furthermore, while Powell convinces as a college professor, the classroom scenes themselves are not necessarily always convincing, a little too neat in the way the dialogue mirrors and underlines Gary’s conundrum, the possibility of leaving an old self behind to create a new one. That neatness extends to conclusion, in which all the plot threads converge is what a tantamount to a tidy bow, surprising for a movie so wily. Even then, though, in the image of a requisite happy ending, a delectable sleight of hand emerges, calling back to Linklater’s other great romantic movies, the Before Trilogy, namely, the third one. “Before Midnight” concluded on a deliberately false note of make-believe, and in its way, “Hit Man” quotes that ending by blowing it up into something even more ironically revealing.

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