The iconography of the professional killer, the hitman, stands as a well-worn but classic trope of crime films. There is an inherent fascination with someone who kills for a living, whose job is to repeatedly ends life, an act that is traumatizing for most to partake in even once. The approach to this depiction has run the gamut, from the romantic but lonely portrayal in Leon the Professional to more cynical, grounded depictions like Fargo. But no matter the perspective, the idea of killing someone for money is too captivating, too alien to our own experience to not explore, and specifically to be fascinated by the impact such a life would have on the psyche of the individual who dedicated themselves to routine, dispassionate murder.
The toll this must take on an individual, and what it would take to shake someone from that mindset, is the central premise of the latest cinematic take on the hitman, Nick Stagliano’s The Virtuoso. Stagliano, working off a script by James C. Wolf, depicts a man who has so dedicated himself to murder than he allows little to no humanity to peek through, preferring to live an isolate life dedicated only to waiting for the next job. As depicted by Anson Mount with appropriately tense restraint, the nameless assassin meticulously runs down his rules for being the finely tuned instrument of death that he must force himself to become, or else consider the cost of his actions. This is communicated throughout the film in internal dialogue, always stated in the second person. “You keep your tools in pristine condition,” he explains to us, and himself. “Perfection demands precision.”
This focus however is disrupted when a job performed by the Virtuoso doesn’t go according to the plan and there is unacceptable innocent life lost. What was once a nearly inhuman machine living on the very edge of society, suddenly starts to unravel and take a serious look at the life he has chosen. When the next job comes in, with typically vague directions to be at a small town diner with vague directions to take care of “White Rivers,” he is shaken and unsure how to continue. He reasserts his rules, his process, but the cracks are starting to widen. Thus we enter into the central tension, of if the Virtuoso will be able to continue their life after this momentary derailment, or are they permanently a different person now and no longer the master assassin they have become.
Mount’s intentionally stiff, alien performance is surrounded by characters with more depth to them, who haven’t suppressed themselves, at least not fully. Most noteworthy perhaps is newly minted two-time Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins as the Virtuoso’s method of receiving assignments (again, never given a proper name, simply referred to in the credits as “the Mentor”.) Hopkins plays the role with the level of detachment necessary, and while not as inhuman as Mount, he carries the scars of past acts of violence as well, but chooses to not linger on them. Hopkins is haunted by his own transgressions, but verbally argues they don’t bother him. It is simply business. His performance here adds a certain gravity to the film overall, even if he doesn’t necessarily elevate himself to his best work for this straight-forward noir puzzler.
The other key performance for Mount to bounce off of is Abbie Cornish, who plays Dixy, a local waitress in the town that the Virtuoso has been sent to. Her interactions with Mount is when the film clicks along the strongest, as she functions as a warm, human balance to his stiffness. When she attempts to flirt with him, his micro-movements of calculation speak volumes. She is attempting to get past his shell, but he has stripped everything else away. All he has left is the shell, to the point where basic human affection feels like a distraction.
The closest comparable film to The Virtuoso is not any other assassin movie, but rather Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Like that film, we are thrust into a situation of unknowns, of secrets and intense observation and intentional blind spots. The mystery unfolds in both films in such a way that we are learning key pieces of information that inform our perception of events both past and to come. The movie doesn’t have a narrative gimmick quite as blatantly as Memento’s, but it does something slightly more subtle; like the Virtuoso himself, the film has set rules of how it communicates information, how it allows you presence in this world. When it starts to break those rules, it catches your attention, drawing you into questions of form and practice.
However, the biggest differentiation between Memento and The Virtuoso is significant: tone. While Memento is nervy, paranoid and frantic, the Virtuoso is almost uncannily calm and still. Even when violence erupts, the approach is still methodical and patient. The Virtuoso as a character takes horrific action with the calm consideration one might play chess, seeing people as merely obstacles to finishing the job. His targets are merely “quarry”, prey for him to outsmart and defeat so he can return to his comfortable quiet. In the back of your mind is the volatility of the botched job always threatens to explode the plan away, but ultimately that tension arises when it needs to thematically, but large portions of the narrative are indifferent to that conflict.
Which is a shame, because some of the strongest moments of the film play directly into that tension, when the rules and regulations that have crafted the Virtuoso to be as effective as he is push against his burgeoning humanity and remorse. Early on in the film, he is witness to a domestic dispute that has no bearing on his mission proper, and he internally recognizes that getting involved certainly violates his tight regulation. These brief moments of redemption, of pushing against the self imposed programming, always start to allow Mount to play with that range for the character. But the movie then pulls us back to the methodical, nearly robotic hitman. The inhuman continually re-asserts itself as the mood, despite the film desperately needing more heart.
Ultimately, the Virtuoso is an interesting concept that delves into aspects of the hitman psyche and the effect that violence and trauma can have on it. But much like the title character himself, the approach is far too cold to be approachable, preferring to keep things at arm’s length. It is hard to tell if the brief moments where the film allows itself humor stand out as stronger because they feel desperately absent in the other more somber portions. Despite the reason why, by the time that film reaches its appropriate if somewhat predictable corkscrew ending, the impact of what would be a rather emotional reveal lands somewhat hollow, mostly because it has not earned any since of pathos. But that is ultimately by design, as what makes The Virtuoso work (both the movie and the character) is remaining calm under pressure. Don’t rush, don’t hesitate, execute with precision. Where it misses the mark is allowing those cracks to widen enough to allow more light of humanity to shine through. As is, the film is slightly too enamored with its stylish inhumanity to have compassion for its core character enough to earn its final moments of catharsis.
The Virtuoso will be released in select theaters and VOD on April 30; and on Blu-Ray and DVD May 4th.