Review – Hit Man

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Overview

Synopsis A New Orleans professor finds himself drawn into police work as a fake hitman, helping catch people attempting to pay for murder.

Length 1 hour, 55 minutes

Release Date September 5, 2023 (Venice), May 24, 2024 (United States), June 7, 2024 (Netflix)

 

Rating R

Distribution Netflix

Directing Richard Linklater

Writing Richard Linklater, Glen Powell

Composition Graham Reynolds

Starring Glen Powell, Adria Arjona, Austin Amelio, Retta

A new Richard Linklater film is always something to celebrate. The acclaimed director of Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Bad News Bears, the Before Trilogy, Me and Orson Welles, Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some, and Apollo 10 1/2 manages to create something new and introspective every few years. And while the quality is inconsistent, you generally know what you’re getting—laid-back films about average people in suburban Texas.

To paraphrase Waking Life, his films are about the holiness of the moment. They are about capturing the essence of the places and people he knows and depicting them in all their humanity. This doesn’t mean his films don’t occasionally shoot for the fantastical. He’s done multiple crime films, period pieces, animated films, and studio family movies. However, his best films focus on his voyeuristic view of American life. 

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: A character is killed when a plastic bag is placed over his head. Another character pulls a gun and threatens to shoot. Frequent references to attempted murder and murder.
Language/Crude Humor: Severe language throughout the film.
Drug/Alcohol References: One character is a drug dealer; alcohol and drugs are present.
Sexual Content: Several instances of graphic male and female nudity and sex scenes.
Spiritual Content: Philosophical discussions of nihilism and moral relativism.
Other Negative Content: Frequent nihilistic philosophizing.
Positive Content: Themes of change and justice.

Review

Hit Man is a curious film in the context of Richard Linklater’s career. It shares some of its DNA with Bernie, in that they’re both “based on a true story” crime thrillers about real people living in the South, who lived incredibly lurid and strange lives despite their mundane backgrounds. But whereas the latter is a very historically rooted film about a strange and tragic East Texas murder and its effect on a small tightly connected town, Hit Man is only loosely based on a real-life man’s bizarre exploits.

Linklater seems to have a more specific thematic target in this film, as he delves into the psychology and tropes of hyper-focused philosophical killer characters we see in films like Drive and The Killer. Add a quixotic lead character, a career-defining Glen Powell performance, and some Goodfellas narration, and you’ve got a decent movie! 

The story follows the semi-truthful exploits of Gary Johnson, a New Orleans psychology/philosophy professor who moonlights as a police tech contractor. When he is asked to step into the role of a murder-for-hire sting, he realizes he has an uncanny ability to convince criminals that he is a hitman for hire and entrapping them while wearing a wire. After months of doing this for all of the lowlife criminals he is trying to capture, a young woman trying to kill her drug dealer ex-husband emerges, and love begins to get in the way, which threatens to drag him into a complicated series of murders. 

Johnson himself is depicted as a somewhat cold and mildly nihilistic character who is detached from the moral implications of his actions. He teaches classes about Nietzsche and moral relativism, and the characters around him note that he’s somewhat cold and detached and able to wear these characteristics with uncanny attention to detail. By the film’s end, Gary has changed remarkably and crossed lines he never believed he would when he wasn’t playing an alter-ego.

If the film has a central question, it is the issue of change. The movie is filled with philosophical speeches about the nature of change. Its main character is a man who changes his identity for a living while waxing poetic about it. As RogerEbert.com says, it is “a study of how easy it is to become what we pretend we are.” The entire back half of the film is fictitious. However, the core of the story is true. There was a real guy who worked with the New Orleans Police Department, who Linklater discovered in an issue of Texas Monthly. By the end of the film, it is clear that we are watching something completely fictional.

The movie directly posits that the concept of the hitman is entirely fictitious, created by action movies, which results in many people seeking out hitmen and being captured by the police for attempted murder. This setup is a great framing device for exploring the psychology of these characters, showing how their weaknesses can be exploited for Johnson’s gain. 

Glenn Powell delivers a career-defining excellent performance in the lead role, having to play a character who himself is playing multiple characters. He creates dozens of personas that are extremely different in how they act and dress, and his ability to swap between them in the moment and bluff through dangerous situations is impressive—showing him to be an actor with more than just Top Gun charisma.  

The result is a movie that is both a light comedy and a dark satire. It is highly philosophical but also accessible and lurid. It throws heavy ideas at its audience and ends on a morally difficult note that challenges the morality of the viewer.

Positives

+ Great Powell performance
+ Solid script
+ Fascinating satire

Negatives

- Nihilistic and morally questionable themes
- Intense sexuality

The Bottom Line

Hit Man is a fascinating Richard Linklater film that manages to simultaneously explore the concept of change while it deconstructs the hitman crime genre, all while being a funny and creative romantic comedy in its own right!

 

8.5

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

1 Comments

  1. maria ambrosio on June 16, 2024 at 6:49 am

    Although I found the lead actor’s performance commendable, I found the final lesson or message dark. Yes, the character changes. But at the end he teaches his students that morality is relative, and you choose to be whatever you want no matter the cost to anyone else. I found the final “murder” scene unnerving. Was it supposed to be comical? And then the quick jump to the happy family scene afterwards? Do their moral choices not affect their lives? This movie would leave impressionable younger people with a dark subliminal message.

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