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Hired Gun

Hit Man Is a Funny, Troubling Drama of Mistaken Identity

The neo-noir starring Glen Powell is a departure for Richard Linklater.

A close up of Adria Arjona and Glen Powell in Richard Linklater's film Hit Man
Courtesy of Netflix

The cover of the October 2001 issue of Texas Monthly depicted Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in unflattering caricature (be-horned, brandishing a pitchfork set like a pair of gridiron football goalposts), and asked the question, “Is Jerry Jones the Devil?” Deeper into the issue, you’ll find a profile of “contrarian” congressman Ron Paul, a preview of a Texas tour by the august French mime Marcel Marceau, and a bizarre true crime feature by journalist Skip Hollandsworth about a man named Gary Johnson, believed by many to be “the greatest professional hit man in Houston.” Believed being the operative word.

Despite dozens of meetings with spurned spouses and burned businessmen eager to pay cold hard cash to knock off their philandering (or otherwise cheating) partners, and despite a raft of aliases (Jody Eagle, Chris Buck, Mike Caine), Gary Johnson never actually whacked anyone. He was a civilian asset of the local police department, posing as a contract killer in order to entrap the very people who sought his services. A master of disguise and consummate confidence man, Johnson was, one local lawyer commented, “the perfect chameleon.” At home, he read Shakespeare and books of Gandhi quotes, tended to his cats, a small garden, and a goldfish pond. He taught courses in psychology and human sexuality at the local community college. He was, in other words, a real character.

In Richard Linklater’s Hit Man, star Glen Powell leans into these eccentricities. Powell, who also co-wrote and produced the film, explores the ever-widening span between Johnson’s unassuming day-to-day life and his increasingly complicated side hustle. As an academic, Powell’s Johnson teaches courses on Nietzsche to bored undergrads. They roll their eyes when their teacher, who sports a dorky hairdo and drives an off-white Honda Civic, implores them to follow the philosopher’s maxim to “live dangerously.” At home, he feeds his cats (Ego and Id) and dines alone, at a comically tiny kitchen table. He is divorced, and very much alone, if not particularly lonely.

To make ends meet, Johnson moonlights, building surveillance technology for the local police. (Hit Man moves the story from Houston to New Orleans, presumably because the city has a bit more visual character and offers tax credit enticements to film producers.) When the New Orleans Police Department’s usual undercover operative is placed on leave, Johnson is hastily pressed into taking his place, playing a role of a contract killer in the latest sting. Proving himself surprisingly adept, he embraces the role: donning increasingly outlandish costumes, accents, and whole personalities, in a series of hilarious encounters that all conclude with the offending party’s mug shot.

As in the real story, and real life, Hit Man hinges on an interesting paradox. The idea of the assassin for hire has been so widely propagated in pulp novels and crime films that many people presume they actually exist. (Michael Fassbinder plays such a character in David Fincher’s most recent film, The Killer, which, like Hit Man is being distributed by Netflix. The two would make a fun double bill.) Of course, crime syndicates and gangs have flanks of soldiers who will murder on command. But the lone wolf, freelance killer seems, by and large, an invention of popular culture. Hit Man explores this disparity between the idea of a thing (i.e., Gary’s goofy characters, each tailored to prospective client) and the more quotidian fact of the thing itself (a guy who is not an assassin at all misting a room full of hanging plants).

These lines get complicated when Gary, posing as the suave button man Ron, meets Maddy (Adria Arjona), a beautiful, mixed-up young woman desperate to take care of her violent ex. Breaking from protocol, Gary persuades Maddy to take a step back and reconsider her options, convincing her not to go through with contracting him (or, rather, “Ron”). Before long, Gary (as “Ron”) strikes up an intense romantic relationship with Maddy, which only draws him deeper into her personal entanglements. Things intensify further when her husband is found dead, by some other means.

Hit Man succeeds in deftly, and comically, managing all these criss-crossed identities. In time, Gary commands the whole of his cunning to simultaneously manage Maddy, his police liaisons, and another cop who seems wise to the whole complex pantomime. Powell’s performance is outstanding. He plays against his own newly popularized persona as Hollywood’s latest cardboard-cutout hunk du jour, gamely modulating his voice, the tilt of his head, the glare in his eyes ever slightly, toggling between “Gary” and “Ron,” sometimes within the same conversation.

A climactic showdown between Powell and Arjona—whose chemistry is off the charts—sees these various strands of reality and duplicity braided around one another, in masterfully written and performed climax. With its careful handling of mistaken identities, criminal subterfuge, and plain guile, Hit Man plays somewhere between Hitchcock and the cross-dressing confabulation Mrs. Doubtfire. (In case it’s unclear: This is a compliment.) Linklater is similarly agile. Even the more heavy-handed, “academic” material (about the Freudian dimensions of Gary’s various competing identities) is handled with a light touch.

Hit Man’s brisk, breezy vibe seems, at times, a little at odds with the material. Indeed, for the bulk of film, the question of Gary’s ethics, and those of the NOPD, never figure too prominently. It’s more or less taken for granted that the people they are ensnaring are bad people—“murder shoppers,” Gary calls them. Yet the cops’ tactics are obviously dubious. Because Gary is not an actual hit man—and further, because, as the film insists, “actual hit men” don’t even exist—the arrests and sentences smack of overreach. All the culprits are really guilty of is conspiring to hypothetically commit a crime that was never committed. Call them “murder window shoppers.”

Linklater, and Powell, seem to acknowledge this moral discrepancy, albeit in a weirdly rushed, after-the-fact fashion. In a truly bizarre, late-film left turn, Gary and Maddy conspire to murder the meddling cop who has sniffed them out, then settle down together and start a family. They attend PTA meetings and munch on big slices of apple pie, like a buttoned-down, suburban Bonnie and Clyde. Murder—and their capacity for it—is never far from their minds, their eyes glinting like the edge of a knife blade.

This whole bit, as the closing credits make plain, is totally fabricated. The real Gary Johnson never murdered anybody. Nor did he, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, help would-be clients get away with murder. It’s an interesting decision on the part of Linklater and Powell. It reaches beyond the standard demands to zhuzh up true stories for the big screen. That original Texas Monthly profile of Johnson ends with writer Hollandsworth reflecting on his subject’s own insights, acquired through many dozens of sting operations. “What Johnson knows, perhaps better than anyone else,” Hollingsworth writes, “is the capability of people, given certain circumstances, to do absolutely savage things to each another.”

Hit Man shifts this knowledge to the viewer. It is Gary Johnson who, given the circumstances, turns savage. His moral compromises, and his actuarial ability to justify them, reach their final and perhaps logical terminus: He becomes the very cold-blooded killer he had long pretended to be. “Seize the identity you want for yourself!” Powell’s Johnson beseeches his undergrads as they settle in for their final exam. It’s a cynical lesson: Nietzschean in that self-justifying, Raskolnikov way. And it reveals a darkness to Johnson’s quirky character that might have otherwise been absent.

It’s a bitter, and kind of confusing, finale to a funny, sexy, otherwise genuinely crowd-pleasing indie comedy. It is especially off-kilter coming from Linklater, a director whose films are more likely to highlight the inherent humanity of characters than their capacity for diabolism. His best films—Dazed and Confused, the quotidian bildungsroman Boyhood, the garrulously chatty and intensely romantic Before trilogy—are ones in which not much “happens,” plot-wise. Characters learn and grow (or don’t). But the stories themselves are pretty gauzy. Linklater is the contemporary master of the so-called “hangout film.” As soon as Hit Man verges on becoming overly plot-driven, it can feel like it’s escaping his grasp. The Middle American neo-noir is Coen brothers territory: the stuff of Blood Simple, Fargo, or other stories of “regular people” indulging their nastiest instincts. It’s terrain Linklater isn’t quite sure-footed enough to navigate. And its moral universe feels similarly wonky.

Compare it to the director’s 2011 film Bernie, a blackly comic biopic about a genteel small-town Texas mortician who is charged with the murder of a local widow. (It was also based on a Skip Hollandsworth story.) Bernie Tiede, played in the film by Jack Black, almost eludes justice. Because everyone in his close-knit community likes him, and abhorred his victim, no local jury will convict him. The district attorney manages to move the case to a town miles away, where Bernie is sentenced to life in prison. However charming he may prove, he cannot escape the law. Elsewhere, Linklater’s ethics feel a bit looser. Films like Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, and Everybody Wants Some!! (which featured Powell as an especially smug college baseball player) exhibit a vast generosity for the stoners, jocks, and dweebs whom more moralizing storytellers may feel inclined to punish.

Hit Man’s imagined Johnson may just be more charming and capable than Bernie Tiede. And more of a piece with Linklater’s typical protagonists: a likable dork getting over on everybody, albeit with extreme prejudice. He and the would-be femme fatale win the day, despite being (presumably) directly implicated in the murder of a police officer. Perhaps their victory is meant to indict the audience, rooting for Gary and Maddy as they get away with murder. Or maybe it’s meant to underline a simpler point, always lurking just underneath the surface of this caper: that murder, and that capacity for absolute savagery, are as all-American as apple pie. Still: Linklater’s wobbly ability to sell the ending may ultimately redound to his credit as a filmmaker and a person. He’s simply too nice a guy to nail such an evil ending.