The smiling psychopathy of Richard Linkater’s Hit Man

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It’s a romantic comedy thriller with winning performances from Glen Powell and Adria Arjona. But isn’t there also darkness in Richard Linklater’s Hit Man, Ryan wonders…?

NB: The following contains spoilers for Hit Man and 2005’s A History Of Violence.

As two lovers gaze into one another’s eyes, solemnly devoting their lives to one another, the body of a man lies on the floor. There’s a plastic bag over his head, and he’s fighting for breath. In a few seconds, the man will be dead and the lovers will kiss.

It’s a bold, extraordinarily dark turning point in an otherwise glossy romantic comedy-thriller.

Did Richard Linklater and Glen Powell consciously set out to make a subversive rom-com with Hit Man? Quite possibly. Whatever their intentions, the film has certainly resonated. Directed with vim by Linklater and given plenty of smiling charisma by Powell and co-star Adria Arjona, the film was so crowd-pleasing that audiences broke into spontaneous applause when it showed at festivals last year. After a brief stint in cinemas, Hit Man now climbing the charts on Netflix.

Like Gary Johnson, Powell’s central character, Hit Man has more than one identity. On one level, it’s a modern noir – loosely based on a true story – about a beige university professor who also poses as a fake hitman on behalf of the New Orleans Police. Then it becomes a rom-com, as Gary, adopting the sexily dangerous persona of his hitman, Ron, meets Madison (Adria Arjona) who wants to have her wealthy asshole husband murdered.

Underpinning it all is a philosophical question of identity: are our personas set, or are they malleable? If we work at it long enough, can we become another person? Linklater and Powell’s answer to this question is an unequivocal yes: the film’s appeal rests on watching Powell’s protagonist gradually morph from a quiet, bespectacled professor to the more outgoing, confident Ron. Similarly, Arjona’s Madison goes from (seemingly) downtrodden and unhappy wife to self-confident and flirtatious.

Credit: Netflix.

Neither transformation would have happened had ‘Ron’ and Madison never met; presumably, had Madison met a genuine hitman, rather than a part-time cop pretending to be one, her husband Ray (Evan Holtzman) would have been killed. Madison would have inherited his multi-million dollar insurance pay out, and she’d have lived happily ever after (or gotten caught for having him offed).

Instead, Madison’s meeting with ‘Ron’, and the latter’s decision to talk her out of having her husband assassinated, sees them embark on a love affair that ultimately changes them both.

Each has their own antagonist to deal with; for Madison it’s the entitled, aggressive Ray. Gary has Jasper (Austin Amelio), a dodgy undercover cop who, as well as being bitter about being upstaged by Gary’s skill as an undercover mole, is also suspicious about his involvement with Madison.

When Madison murders Ray, and Gary helps her cover up the crime, Jasper works out their scheme and attempts to blackmail the couple. All of which builds to the pivotal scene mentioned earlier, where Madison and Ron, now fully immersed in their new personas, murder Jasper (she drugs him, he suffocates him with a bag) and kiss passionately as he lies dying.

Read more: Hit Man review | Glen Powell shoots for stardom in Richard Linklater’s brilliant comedy

Films about murderous lovers are hardly new. Arthur Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde startled some critics in 1967 because it cast two young, good-looking actors – Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway – as real-life murderers. Older writers were horrified by the film’s violence and amorality; a younger generation – including Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael – loved it.

Now considered a landmark in American filmmaking, Bonnie And Clyde was among the first in a string of thrillers about lovers who kill, including Terrance Malick’s Badlands, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Tony Scott’s True Romance (both written by Quentin Tarantino) and more besides.

The ill-fated douchebag Jasper in Hit Man. He had it coming, we guess…? Credit: Netflix.

One fascinating difference between those films and Hit Man is that, in the end, Gary and Madison aren’t outlaws. Lovers who become murderers generally meet a sticky end (as in, say Bonnie And Clyde or Double Indemnity), are caught (as in Hitchcock’s Rope) or go on the run (True Romance, Natural Born Killers). In Hit Man, a coda catches up with Madison and Gary a few years later, where they lead the lives of a happy, all-American couple. They have a pleasant house, two kids and a couple of dogs. They’re never caught. They live happily ever after.

In this regard, Hit Man shares a number of parallels with A History Of Violence, David Cronenberg’s 2005 thriller. Like Hit Man, it deals with identity, albeit in the opposite way from Linklater’s film: Viggo Mortensen plays a former gangster and killer who, keen to put his old life behind him, becomes Tom Stall – a quiet, unassuming diner owner. Now with a wife and two kids, he assumes the role of an average American familyman – at least until a bloody confrontation in his diner forces Tom to confront his old, ruthless persona.

At first, Tom’s family, not least his wife, Edie (Maria Bello) are horrified that the person they love had this other life. The film’s final scene, however, implies that they’ll remain together – albeit cautiously. There’s certainly none of the brightly-lit happy ending we saw in Hit Man.

In interviews, Cronenberg has suggested that our identities are something we create through an act of will; we wake up each day and have to constantly figure out who we are. “The amount of energy going into maintaining an identity every day is enormous,” he once said. “Spider [Cronenberg’s 2002 drama] was an examination of a person who could not maintain an identity.”

It’s a sentiment that Linklater and Powell evidently agree with. One indicator of Gary’s changing opinion – and his transformation into someone more like his hitman persona – are his university lectures. He goes from someone who “used to believe that reality was objective, immutable” to someone who believes “there are no absolutes, whether moral or epistemological” and that you can “seize the identity you want for yourself.”

That’s an empowering, upbeat message, certainly. But another of Gary’s lectures, delivered just before the third act, contains something darker, foreshadowing the murder to come.

Everyone smiles a lot in this movie. Credit: Netflix.

“There’s been a lot of scholarship on this very subject recently,” Gary says when he talks to his class about the times when killing someone might be morally justifiable. “And the new thinking is that these targeted killings actually play a larger part in our social evolution than previously thought. This impulse to weed out these destabilising forces is likely a dark thread in our DNA. These killings […] eliminated a certain type of coercive and uncooperative person from the gene pool.”

It’s quite a heavy sentiment to slip into a breezy thriller rom-com, and one that seems to have passed some critics by. A piece over on Marie Claire describes Hit Man as “a Hollywood fantasy… that’s as sweet as pie.” But is it really? Is the story of two lovers who throw an impromptu wedding service (Adria Arjona calls it a “proposal scene”) as a man suffocates to death on the floor really as sweet as it looks?

None of this is to say that there’s anything wrong with Hit Man’s unsettling subtext. Indeed, it’s what makes, for this writer, what could be a lightweight film fascinating and even subversive. Had Powell and Arjona been less beautiful and charismatic, or Linklater opted for an icier, more Cronenbergian tone, Hit Man could have emerged as the study of two seemingly ordinary people who bring out the latent sociopathy in each other; two people who, like the pairing in Hitchcock’s aforementioned Rope, dabble in murder after reading too much Friedrich Nietzche.

In a way, Hit Man is still that, but it’s served up in a way that drowns the unease – almost, but not entirely.

Right at Hit Man’s end, there’s a fascinating, tiny moment between Madison and a teacher at her daughter’s school. The teacher mentions that someone named Gabby was meant to help out with an imminent field trip but had bailed at the last second; “I could have literally strangled her to death,” she jokes.

Madison laughs, showing all her teeth, but says nothing.

Credit: Netflix.

Linklater lets the camera linger on her face for a second. It asks us to wonder: what is Madison thinking at that moment? Does her mind leap back to Jasper, lying on the floor, suffocating? If so, perhaps she feels a pang of guilt as that image comes bubbling back to the surface.

Or, more disturbingly, maybe she feels nothing at all.

Hit Man is streaming now on Netflix.

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