The Deceptive Dark Side of ‘Hit Man’ and Richard Linklater

The slick outer packaging of ‘Hit Man’ belies a grimly profound subtext about American life. It’s a juxtaposition hidden within many of the director’s works.

Getty Images/Netflix/Warner Independent Pictures/Castle Rock Entertainment/Mandalay Vision/Ringer illustration

Few directors can match the buoyancy of Richard Linklater at his best: His shaggy hangout comedies and twilit coming-of-age fables glide by on waves of empathy and exhilaration, the feeling of smooth sailing through untroubled waters. (Think of the gorgeous passage in Before Sunset where Céline and Jesse literally go boating.) But, as with any genuinely ambitious artist—and there’s a case to be made for the autodidactic Austinite as the stealth American master of his entire Gen X cohort—there’s also an undertow to Linklater’s cinema, one that can drag unsuspecting viewers into some sunken places.

Exhibit A would be Linklater’s superb—and wonderfully deceptive—new movie, Hit Man, now out on Netflix, which shames nearly every mainstream romantic comedy in recent memory simply by delivering the genre goods: It’s the sort of movie they don’t make anymore but that they also didn’t necessarily make that well in the first place. It’s got a striking, ostensibly fact-based premise—a university professor impersonates a professional assassin in order to help the local police entrap people who want to commit murder by proxy until he falls in love with a beautiful, would-be client—and all kinds of enticements: a pair of sexy, palpably compatible leads (Glen Powell and Adria Arjona, the latter of whom deserves to be a big star); a twisty, satisfying screenplay loaded with delightful, rat-a-tat dialogue (cowritten by Linklater and Powell); and the kind of swift, effortless craftsmanship that’s all but disappeared from mid-budget moviemaking.

Linklater has his artsy side and sometimes cultivates aesthetic gimmicks (the time-lapse production of Boyhood, the rotoscoping of Waking Life); as a former college shortstop with two decent baseball movies on his résumé (Bad News Bears and Everybody Wants Some!!), he definitely knows how to throw a curveball. But when he wants to serve things straight down the middle—like in, say, School of Rock, still one of the true crowd-pleasers of the 21st century—he does so with a steady hand. In Hit Man, in scene after marvelous scene, the director finds a way to fuse his eccentricity with blockbuster showmanship on a molecular level.

In a perfect world, Linklater’s 21st feature in 24 years would be a box office hit and a pop cultural conversation piece. (Some have understandably grumbled about how Netflix limited it to a brief theatrical run.) What’s specifically worth talking about is how Hit Man’s slick outer packaging belies its deeply unsettling—and grimly profound—subtext about American life: the violent impulses festering in the most everyday places. The idea that Powell’s geeky Gary Johnson, who’s not exactly a (figurative) lady-killer, could tap into a hidden wellspring of charisma by pretending to be a secretive gunslinger is one thing: There are plenty of movies dealing with the seductive aspects of alpha-male masculinity and the sexiness of cloak-and-dagger role-play. (To name two: True Lies and A History of Violence.) What’s disturbing—more and more so as the film goes on—is how Linklater’s New Orleans seems to be populated exclusively by desperate, angry people who feel that their lives are one clandestine assassination away from getting back on track; just because Gary won’t actually act on their wishes doesn’t mitigate the overall atmosphere of seething, barely repressed rage.

The juxtaposition of folksiness with something more macabre has a direct precedent in Linklater’s filmography: In both style and substance, Hit Man feels like a spiritual sequel—or maybe a creepy cousin—to 2011’s underrated Bernie, another stranger-than-fiction caper based on journalist Skip Hollandsworth’s 1998 article about the bizarre murder trial of one Bernie Tiede. The film stars Jack Black as the title character, a small-town funeral director whose chipper exterior masks real pain; although he’s a pillar of his community, Bernie’s barely veiled queerness marks him as an outsider in a state that bleeds red. His closest relationship is with an elderly—and wealthy—widow named Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), who’s as hated by her neighbors as Bernie is loved and who gradually pushes the latter to a psychological breaking point. It’s not a spoiler to say that the film is the story of a proverbial good guy who commits a deadly sin; what’s so fascinating—and peculiar—about Linklater’s handling of the material is the suggestion that some people are so contemptuous (and contemptible) that the world may just be better off without them, especially given that Bernie’s first impulse (after carefully storing his ex-bestie in a freezer) is to play Robin Hood with her vast estate.

In a slight, unassuming way, Bernie is a radical piece of filmmaking, melding the tropes of black comedy with true crime documentary: The talking heads that pop up at regular intervals to help narrate the story include some of Tiede’s real-life neighbors, whose testimonies, by and large, seek to vindicate him. In addition to scrambling our understanding of fact and fiction, Linklater does something that’s rare—and daring—for a commercial American director, especially in a period when many critics and viewers seem to demand brownie points for engaging with movies with “bad” politics or messaging. He asks the audience to parse and interpret the stories he’s telling on their own, without any hints as to the “right” answer, the same tactic he’s practicing—albeit in an even sneakier mode—in Hit Man, with its carefully controlled but ultimately perverse tale of self-actualization.

There are other examples where Linklater slyly has it both ways, including arguably his most beloved titles. Dazed and Confused vibrates with nostalgia for the halcyon, hard-rocking days of the early ’70s, but it’s also shadowed by sensations of anxiety around the vicious hazing rituals enacted on incoming freshmen by a campus-ruling class of knuckleheaded seniors (still Ben Affleck’s single best performance). And, depending on how you look at it, the hyper-articulate, semi-improvised, wall-to-wall conversations between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy that define the Before films—a trilogy set at nine-year intervals in the lives of its tempestuous lovers—either speak to the eloquence of its intellectually curious characters or confirm their inability, across the decades, to truly communicate. (“I feel like you’re breathing helium and I’m breathing oxygen.”)

The saying goes that it’s darkest before the dawn, and, compared to its two predecessors, Before Midnight is a caustic, claustrophobic viewing experience; where the courtship rituals of Sunrise and Sunset evoked the style of Éric Rohmer, the finale’s knock-down, drag-out arguments contain bellowing echoes of John Cassavetes. The film’s emotional violence is so bruisingly acute, in fact, that its provisionally happy ending feels imposed—a fact of which Linklater is keenly aware. For a movie set in Greece to close with a reference to a deus ex machina—with Hawke’s despondent, unfaithful Jesse throwing a Hail Mary in the form of a thought experiment about time travel and a letter from the future—indicates a filmmaker who understands the relationship (and difference) between fantasy and reality.

Linklater’s one full foray into science fiction is his bleakest movie, and maybe his most underappreciated: Released with minimal fanfare into a Bush-era zeitgeist that should have better recognized its futuristic surveillance-state satire for present-tense critique, 2006’s A Scanner Darkly could be the evil twin of Waking Life. That 2001 film centered on a young man (Wiley Wiggins) whose existential crisis is visualized as a series of animated, lucid dreamscapes featuring heady conversations with a gallery of high-minded (or just plain high) weirdos (including, um, Alex Jones); the effect was simultaneously lulling and invigorating, a blissful doodle in the margins of an undergraduate textbook on metaphysics. A Scanner Darkly uses a similar visual style to adapt a Philip K. Dick novel about an America smarting from its defeat in the modern drug war; how do you successfully criminalize—or police—the narcotics trade when literally everybody is addicted? The counterintuitive casting of the ever-serene Keanu Reeves as a paranoid undercover agent pays off in one of the actor’s most deftly turned performances, ably supported by a twitchy, terrific Robert Downey Jr. at the beginning of his professional comeback trail. The plot point in which Reeves’s Bob Arctor plies his trade via a high-tech “scramble suit”—a custom-made bit of gear that projects a shifting set of racial and social identities over his real, hangdog countenance—beautifully visualizes the film’s themes of psychic slippage; it also anticipates Hit Man’s master-of-disguise high jinks, as well as its nagging, fundamental questions about the thin line between performance and being.

Such ambiguity is at the core of Linklater’s cinema, which almost always reveals some hidden stratum of meaning or intention, whether in a conspicuously layered panorama such as Fast Food Nation—a docu-fictional portrait of the rapacious corporate appetites devouring American industry and identity—or even a skeletal, one-room drama such as 2001’s Tape, shot in real time in a single location but increasingly unstuck in time and space as its characters begin trading bitter revelations and recriminations. Time and again, Linklater conjures up dazzling illusions for the express purpose of dissolving them, like in the exuberant but unsentimental 1930s period piece Me and Orson Welles, whose virtuoso namesake (Christian McKay) ends up teaching Zac Efron’s wannabe star a harsh lesson in showbiz ethics. (Linklater’s next project is a drama about the history of the French New Wave, which should invite even more cinephile scrutiny than his multifaceted and ultimately evenhanded portrait of the director of Citizen Kane.)

None of this is to say that Linklater’s good spirits are in bad faith, and the benign sweetness of films like School of Rock (which thankfully keeps the stakes low and the energy high) or Everybody Wants Some!! (a utopian counterpoint to Dazed and Confused in which the jocks are sweethearts and manage to get along with kids from other cohorts) is a precious commodity in its own right. The latter film was, of course, the coming-out party for Powell, whose drawling, posturing Finn is a sublime study in half-cocked bravado, prone to spurts of narcissistic arrogance but also self-deprecation when it counts. (“If I had a prohibition against sleeping with all women who believe in astrology, I’d still be a virgin.)

Even in his breakthrough role, Powell was a smart enough actor to thread charm through obnoxiousness while serving basically as an ensemble player; nearly a decade later, Hit Man gives him a tour de force. Gary’s knack for matching his various undercover performances to the expectations of his potential marks is hilarious, offering Powell a shape-shifting showcase beyond his usual post-McConaughey hipster shtick. Without spoiling the movie’s many twists, it can’t be understated how Powell’s ability to walk the tightrope between goofiness and ruthlessness—and to play certain moments at least two ways at once—is essential to its ultimate power. The sense of satisfaction provided by Linklater and his collaborators in Hit Man is real, but so is the nagging suspicion that they’ve gotten away with something slipperier and more insidious. “I’m always fascinated with this evolution of self,” the director told Slant recently. “Who are we, why we do what we do … pretty fundamental questions.” Linklater’s curiosity is endearing—and enduring—but what makes him a major director is that he’s less interested in easy answers than hard truths.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.

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