Monday, June 10, 2024

Hit Man (Richard Linklater, 2023)

Assassin's creed

Richard Linklater's Hit Man -- adapted from the Texas Monthly magazine piece of the same name written by Skip Hollandsworth-- is that rare news article adaptation that takes an interesting premise (ordinary joe poses as assassin-for-hire for New Orleans PD sting operation) and pushes it to its logical extreme, or at least as extreme as the director can manage. Glen Powell is Gary Johnson, a philosophy professor who teases his students with questions like "What if your self is a construction?" Linklater wastes no time testing that postulate: one day the operation finds itself without a plainclothes officer to deliver the sting, and Gary's colleagues coax him to step in instead.

Powell under Linklater's deft direction sells us the proposition that this guy is a straightshooter that has never pretended to be anything other than himself before, much less in such sketchy circumstances: a half-lit diner, a heavily tattooed bearded man sitting opposite. I remember once agreeing to stand in for my brother at a college org initiation, facing a roomful of seniors eager to grill me over coals-- only my brother stepped in at the last minute and (being an identical twin) gave them a sudden Twilight Zone jolt; I can imagine Gary experiencing a similarly high-altitude moment only he has to fly solo, without someone in the wings waiting to step in and bail him out. 

Gary pulls it off not just once but several times, often enough that the question of a constructed self can only be followed by a qualifying "which one?" Gary slips on  selves as easily as an actor slips on costumes; as Ron (his nome de guerre) he's smarter funnier more instinctive, with a long list of victims hanging from his belt. And he gets away with it every time-- his confidence partly due to playing dress-up for a good cause (arresting co-conspirators to attempted murder), partly due to knowing he has the police to back him just in case. And Powell, apparently, is this mildly likable actor who finds himself despite his blandness assuming this sexier more volatile quick-change persona easily, almost to his surprise and definitely to ours. 

Meet Maddy Masters (Adria Arjona); unlike most of Gary's would-be clients, she's no rich housewife seeking to inherit her husband's fortune or disgruntled gun nut wishing to pay back a grudge but a young woman terrified of her physically abusive pathologically jealous boyfriend. Maddy comes to the table where Gary as Ron sits and asks "Is that good pie?" "All pie is good pie," Ron replies unblinking. There's palpable chemistry in the air; you feel electricity crackle between them. As Ron gets up to go he pushes the envelope of money back to her and suggests she uses that cash to get herself a new life instead.

Reading Skip Hollandsworth's source article one finds a lightly amusing story with an undercurrent of sadness running throughout as Gary-- in real life not the most sociable of beings himself-- talks to these varied mildly eccentric folks so unhappy with their lives they want to deprive someone of his, and Linklater captures both tone and undercurrent precisely. What the director brings to the party though, through casting and writing and camerawork, is this effortless erotic charge that sparks up proceedings. Not that the clients haven't come on to Ron before; some slide their hands up his thigh to his crotch; others bat come-hither lashes and suggest all kinds of side benefits if he pulls the job off. Maddy's different; she's subdued, a little scared, and such a heartstoppingly unaffected beauty Ron can't help leaning forward where he usually leans away. His gently pushing that envelope in her direction feels like a natural gesture, even inevitable-- something you might feel you'd do yourself, in his situation. 

And everything proceeds from there: Maddy's furtive next text ("Can we meet?"), their shy wellness checks on each other, their next actual date are the cautious pas de deux of two attractive people finding themselves drawn towards each other, and we're caught in their mutual electrostatic field. When things go pear-shape and start spiraling out of control, you can't help hoping they'll come out all right, no matter what they do. 

Suddenly we're into Double Indemnity territory and while I'd never dare suggest Linklater writes dialogue as sparkling witty as Billy Wilder or Raymond Chandler or James M Cain, Linklater's Gary does come up with a handful of inventive subterfuges to stay ahead of both Maddy's boyfriend and the police (that cell phone scene for one-- but Linklater who throughout his career has shown a love of actors and their performances must be familiar with the thrills of on-the-spot improv).

Not that the film is perfect, and excuse me a moment while I use Double Indemnity a second time to bash a few dents into the film's side panels (please skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen the picture): beggars the imagination that when Gary learns Maddy did shoot her boyfriend he'd still trust her so, or that he'd continue to trust her moving forward, to the point that he'd have a life and a few kids for her. Gary in Hollandsworth's article is a loner three times divorced; he's admitted that the job has given him a dim view of humanity and I can't imagine him having an easy time trusting Maddy.  Maddy in turn cries out to be a classic femme fatale of the Barbara Stanwyck school, and that she turns out to be only mildly homicidal (her confession to Gary treated more like a comedy skit than a dark reveal) is a keen disappointment; when Stanwyck was done backbiting her husband then killing him there was even better sport to be had watching her and Fred McMurray turn on each other. Some things in noir shouldn't be tampered with, I think; I'd cite the scene in Lady From Shanghai where Orson Welles tells his story about sharks-- Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloane are, I submit, an even more vicious version of Stanwyck and McMurray, rendered venomous by years of curdled companionship. One might argue Linklater was going for something other than classic noir; I'm of the opinion he didn't go far enough. 

But that's my chief complaint; otherwise this may be Linklater's most sheerly pleasurable work to date, and that there's something to Powell's comic chops. And Ms. Arjona, if life is at all to have any sense of justice, should be a major star. 

First published in Businessworld 6.7.24

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