Hit Man: Richard Linklater’s contract killer comedy leaves a refreshingly bitter aftertaste

Glen Powell gives an audaciously on point performance as a nerdy philosophy professor masquerading as an assassin in Linklater’s strange, multilayered comedy.

Hit Man (2023)
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. 

“All pie is good pie,” says Gary Johnson (Glen Powell), the hero – or is he? – of Richard Linklater’s deceptively flaky new comedy. What this otherwise agreeable mantra, repeated at regular intervals across Hit Man’s running time, fails to specify is that, regardless of flavour, the pie in question is likely of the American variety –and that it’s probably laced with arsenic.

Loosely based on a true story a la its director’s previous Bernie (2011) – with which it would make an instructive double bill – Linklater’s latest feature is a screwball docudrama about a nerdy New Orleans philosophy professor whose sideline as a police-surveillance tech mutates into a series of flamboyant masquerades impersonating contract killers. It’s an unlikely job, but somebody’s got to do it: after a more experienced (and streetwise) colleague is suspended, it falls to Gary to get into character – and costume – and coax suspected would-be murderers into incriminating themselves on tape, after which he’s free to traipse back to his civilian existence and spoon-feed Nietzsche to uncomprehending undergrads.

In terms of tone, Hit Man takes its cues from its chipper, magnetically handsome leading man, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Powell’s conception of his character as a good-natured but self-conscious cipher – one who’s named his cats Id and Ego, and who harbours an itch to inhabit skin thicker and coarser than his own – is audaciously on point for a movie that contemplates the construction of the self. Gary’s furtive undercover excursions to diners and skeet-shooting ranges in a set of absurd personas are, by and large, hilarious; the joke is less that the character disappears into his various disguises than that his essential nebbishness is always poking through. Imagine Peter Sellers subtly and deliberately smudging his own chameleonic qualities, and you have some idea of what Powell is trying here, and how skillfully he achieves it. 

The reason that Gary’s marks can’t see through the subterfuge is that they’re mesmerised by their own murderous motivations. The procession of small-town folks contemplating paid assassination as a solution to their problems somehow simultaneously evokes Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939) — everyone has his, or her reasons — and Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Cure (1997), with its intimations of everyday bloodlust unleashed and absolved via a little bit of positive reinforcement. During a courtroom montage, Gary is referred to by defense lawyers as a predator and an opportunist, and Linklater, who may be more interested in thought experiments than any other working filmmaker, invites us to ponder the accuracy of those accusations.

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell as Maddie and Gary in Hit Man (2023)

Such ethical judgments notwithstanding, Gary is good at what he does; the only potential perp who really trips him up is Maddie (Adria Arjona), whose desire to terminate her abusive husband seems rooted in self-preservation rather than malice, and who ends up falling for Gary’s taciturn alter ego Ron after he convinces her to call the whole thing off. Maddie’s mistaken belief that she’s dating some kind of walking contradiction – a hitman with a heart of gold – is played for gentle (and erotic) farce, and while there are maybe one too many male-fantasy sequences here, Arjona makes it clear that the character is in touch with her own desires. The noirish tint of her plotline eventually darkens and, after a rollicking middle section, Hit Man becomes pressurised as a thriller – albeit one in which matters of life and death take a backseat to questions of identity.

The last act features scenes unlike anything Linklater’s ever filmed before, and his sense of control never wavers; he’s so locked into the material – and the ideas rattling around inside of it – that he’s able to integrate whimsy and morbidity at a molecular level. The result is a movie whose surface charm belies a pervasive – and finally persuasive – sense of callousness, a quality not usually in Linklater’s unstintingly humanist repertoire but which gives the strange and multilayered confection that is Hit Man its refreshingly bitter aftertaste.