The subject of hitmen has been a common theme in the Venice lineup this year. Audiences have been treated to the neo-noir thriller from David Fincher The Killer as well as the much-derided experimental film from Harmony Korine Aggro Dr1ft. But nobody was anticipating that Richard Linklater’s aptly named Hit Man would end up being one of the most crowd-pleasing offerings of not just the festival but of the whole of 2023.
It’s delightfully ironic that Richard Linklater’s Hit Man ended up being the most surprising film of the 2023 Venice Film Festival – because, like its protagonist Gary Johnson (a star-cementing turn from Glen Powell) the film looks so unassuming and was hidden in plain sight amongst the festival programme. That it was playing out-of-competition gave us no reason to take it too seriously. But this film is like the cinematic equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing; it lures you into thinking it’s something safe and familiar but is not at all what you expect.
Based on “the somewhat true story of Gary Johnson” and played by a pitch-perfect Glen Powell who also co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, the film starts with an introduction to Gary’s somewhat mundane but content day-to-day existence in New Orleans.
At first glance, Gary’s life looks simple and plain. He’s essentially a well-meaning but dorky college professor who teaches philosophy and psychology. He’s beige, ordinary and perfectly forgettable. The type of fella you wouldn’t give a second glance at in the street. He drives a Civic and lives in the suburbs where he tends to his plants and is majorly into birding.
But his main passion in life is his interest in human consciousness and behaviour, so much so that he named his cats Id and Ego. His outlet for this interest is his part-time job as an assistant to the police who catch premeditative murderers looking for hitmen to do their dirty work.
Gary is just the guy in the van who monitors the audio but when sketchy cop Jasper (Austin Amelio) is suspended minutes before a bust, Gary is “promoted” to the new role of “contracted killer.”. Hesitant at first Gary soon finds he has a natural talent for embodying the role of hitman-for-hire and getting his targets to incriminate themselves by handing over envelopes of cash in exchange for executing their intended victims.
Soon after, Gary starts adopting a variety of hitman guises customised for each potential perp. Were treated to a hilarious lickety-split montage of comical costumes, wigs and prosthetic make-up. An actor prepares but a fake assassin prepares harder.
All is going well until Gary crosses paths with an enchanting target Madison (Adria Arjona) who is at the end of her rope, trapped in a controlling toxic marriage with her husband Ray (Evan Holtzman). Normally these meetings are sleazy encounters but this first interaction with Madison plays out more like a meet-cute in a rom-com. She’s charmed by Gary’s latest character Ron and he takes pity on her because of his attraction to her. It’s a delicate yet sexy scene that’s expertly played out by Powell and Arjona. There is instantaneous sizzling chemistry between them resulting in them being one of the hottest onscreen romantic pairings of the year.
The attraction is so strong that Gary maintains his Ron persona and discreetly starts dating Madison which violates a number of police rules. He plays his hand very close to his vestchest with both the police and Madison. But as Gary gets in deeper with her, his identities and covers become more and more tangled and the game he’s playing becomes exceptionally complicated as he plays both sides.
Linklater has pulled off a masterful genre cocktail of comedy, drama, noir, romance and thriller. Linklater is known for his versatility but it takes a filmmaker of incredible skill to to balance so much all at once. It would’ve been very easy for this film to topple over into farce but the tone is pitch-perfect. The third act in particular lends itself to the premise of a screwball comedy and while it flirts with silliness, it never crosses the line into implausibility. Even in the film’s most outrageous moments I never didn’t believe what was going on.
Hit Man may just be Linklater’s most accessible and mainstream film he’s made since 2003’s School of Rock but what’s remarkable is that it’s not simply a fun caper, it is also a clever examination of identity. The scenes where Gary is teaching give the viewer a crash course in philosophy pertaining to “the self” but it’s all done with playful irony as metaphor for Gary’s predicament outside the classroom. When Gary steps into the shoes of Ron he finds a confidence he didn’t even know he had. But if the self is just role play at what point does Ron stop being an illusion, a construction or an act? That’s what makes Powell’s performance so enjoyable; the evolution of him going from a well-mannered wallflower to a sexy badass is delicious.
What’s even more satisfying is that Hit Man promises to be the launching pad of its two stars who have always been consistently good but never given the right material to fully showcase their skill sets. Both Powell and Arjona are sublime here.
Glen Powell has been on the rise for several years usually in strong supporting turns like Top Gun: Maverick and Hidden Figures. He has all the charisma and devilish good looks of a leading man and now he’s found the perfect likeable part to catapult him into more substantial leading roles. His comedic timing and facial gestures during the film’s most high-stakes moments are astutely realised. It‘s a performance of someone who’s constantly putting on a performance and many of his gestures appear improvised but were probably precisely planned for maximum comedic effect. His elasticity from scene to scene is marvellous.
Adria Arjona shows excellent range as a woman desperate for a way out of a horrid marriage. She somehow remains sympathetic and likeable even though she at first wants to off her spouse. She even cracks appallingly lovable cat-puns in her first interaction with Ron which leaves both him and the audience smitten.
Tightly written, finely-tuned tonally and paced with a spring in its step, Hit Man is not only this year’s hidden gem at Venice it is also one of the best films of 2023.
Hit Man has its world premiere at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and will be screened at TIFF and the BFI London Film Festivals. There is no U.S. distribution at this time.