“You have to live passionately and on your own terms,” says the film’s director and co-writer Richard Linklater. In the last decade, Linklater has completed one of the greatest film trilogies of all time (Before Midnight), completed a twelve-year passion project (Boyhood), released a spiritual sequel to his classic Dazed and Confused (Everybody Wants Some!! ), and most recently, a rotoscope animated pseudo-documentary (Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood). Linklater takes on yet another film style in Hit Man, creating his own version of a film noir, and ends up making his best film since Boyhood.
Glen Powell (who also co-wrote the script) plays Gary Johnson, a psychology and philosophy teacher who also works for the New Orleans police force on the side. When the unassuming Gary is charged with playing a phoney hitman in stings, he takes to the part very well, assuming several identities to beguile the individuals wanting to hire him. But when Gary/his sexier alias Ron meets Madison (Adria Arjona), a lady who wants her husband murdered, passions fly and the two begin a romance that might spell disaster for both of them.
It immediately becomes evident that noir is an ideal style for Linklater to explore since his tone complements the visuals of the genre. When inserted into a plot like this, his kind of humour is incredibly enjoyable, and by making Gary Johnson a professor, he can add philosophical conversations reminiscent of films like Slacker, A Scanner Darkly, or Waking Life. Hit Man is reminiscent of Robert Altman’s noir investigation in The Long Goodbye, which similarly seemed like an excellent marriage of a director’s aesthetic with a genre we would not have anticipated from them.
Powell has worked often with Linklater since 2006’s Fast Food Nation and Hit Man is their fourth and greatest collaboration. Furthermore, it provides Powell with the best opportunity to demonstrate his acting abilities. His love for bizarre outfits and tailoring his look to his role demonstrates how amusing he can be, portraying everything from a hillbilly to a Tilda Swinton-like assassin. He’s also great at switching between Gary and Ron. Even when we see him as the vastly more confident Ron, we can still see the frightened, uncomfortable Gary beneath. With Powell also co-writing Hit Man, he is showcasing his abilities not just as an actor, but also on the page. Both have a lot of great possibilities in the future.
But Linklater’s ability to make Hit Man attractive is also startling. Madison is the closest thing to a “femme fatale” stereotype in the film, and the chemistry between Arjona and Powell is off the charts. The chemistry between these two is insane, from their first encounter, which functions as the hiring of an assassin, Gary/Ron trying to convince her that murder isn’t the answer in this situation, and also a meet-cute. It adds to the appeal of this lovely story as it (and their romance) heats up.
Hit Man is also one of Linklater’s most truly delightful pictures, an utter joy to see unfold and play out. He keeps the noir narrative’s twists simple, leaving viewers to savour and admire Powell’s comedy abilities, love entanglements, and the anticipation of when this relationship may go too far. Powell, Linklater, and the rest of the actors are having a great time with this premise, and it’s a thrill to see how it all comes together.
With an opening title that claims that this is a “somewhat true story,” and given that the original article on which the film is based was written by Skip Hollandsworth—who also penned the foundation for Linklater’s Bernie—Hit Man feels like a spiritual sequel of sorts to that. Each finds Linklater successfully combining murder with comedy. His and Powell’s screenplay isn’t bound by the real events and even jokes about their deviations at the conclusion. That capacity to convey their own version of the story is a quality, not a flaw.
Linklater has been experimenting his entire career, but the last decade seems to have had more ups and downs than previously. We’ve seen some of Linklater’s greatest work during this time period, but we’ve also seen some of his most dubious films, ones that occasionally lose their heart and passion, or feel like experiments and spiritual sequels and nothing more. Hit Man, on the other hand, is Linklater’s interest in experimentation done right—trying out a genre he’s never really dabbled in before, having a joy riffing on the tropes and ideas that made him love the genre, all while crafting a picture that feels entirely his own. It’s always great to see Linklater explore and play, but Hit Man feels far more like a success than an experiment.