TIFF 2023 | Hit Man (Richard Linklater, US) — Special Presentations

By Jordan Cronk

More than any American filmmaker of his generation, Richard Linklater has made a career out of alternating between personal and commercial directorial projects. That these more mainstream offerings don’t suffer as frequently or as dramatically as do any number of comparable efforts by his contemporaries speaks to the integrity of Linklater’s approach and the collaborative spirit that animates even his least outwardly distinctive undertakings. Linklater’s latest, Hit Man, is his best populist work since Bernie (2011), and like that quirky tale of a mild-mannered mortician turned murderer, it’s a biographical crime comedy based on a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth with enough regional lore, stranger than fiction intrigue, and offbeat humour to affirm the film’s auteurist bonafides. 

Starring Glen Powell (who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater) as Gary Johnson, a real-life philosophy professor who posed for more than a decade as a contract killer for the Houston Police Department, Hit Man (which is set in New Orleans) playfully embellishes a case in which Johnson, while working undercover, struck up a romance with a female client who tried enlisting him to murder her abusive husband. The only problem: the woman, Madison (Adria Arjona), doesn’t know that Ron, the suave would-be killer she met with over coffee, is actually the nerdy Gary, who keeps his identity under wraps and the tryst a secret from his co-workers. Meanwhile, Gary’s colleague and fellow fake hit man, Jasper (Austin Amelio), is suspicious of Gary’s activities, setting up a three-way cat-and-mouse game in which identities blur and motivations become increasingly foggy as Gary attempts to play both sides without getting anyone killed or incarcerated, including himself.

Linklater and Powell get a lot of mileage out of the film’s slippery neo-noir setup, with the latter donning different getups and affecting new personas from scene to scene, while the former adjusts the story’s moral compass just enough throughout to implicitly call upon the viewer to examine their own shifting sympathies. There’s a wonderful scene near the end of the film in which Gary and Madison, now on the same page, avoid being exposed on a wiretapped recording by performing as alternate versions of themselves (and with the clever use of a cell phone) that plays like a screwball comedy set piece updated for the surveillance age. At once amusing and outlandish, it’s one of many sequences put over by its performers and presented with sly authorial flair by Linklater, who, in trademark fashion, elevates a potentially one dimensional premise into a fun, full-bodied entertainment.

jcronk@cinema-scope.com Cronk Jordan