By Theresa Rodewald.
Could be an enjoyable action thriller [but] jumps between locations, plot points, and flashbacks without ever deciding which story to tell.”
The Virtuoso (Anson Mount), an enigmatic hitman, lives a solitary life in the woods. After a mission goes awry, the Virtuoso reluctantly accepts a mysterious job, just two words written on a piece of paper, from his handler the Mentor (recent Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins). The assignment leads him toa diner at the fringes of a sleepy town where he must identify his mark from among several targets. Soon, a deadly manhunt unfolds as the Virtuoso sets out to do his job first and ask questions later.
The Virtuoso (Nick Stagliano, 2021) could be an enjoyable action thriller. Instead, it jumps between locations, plot points and flashbacks without ever deciding which story to tell. The film’s overarching problem is the script. Not every script has to reinvent the wheel, subvert expectations, bend rules and offer a critique of society. But it needs to say something, to tell a story that rings true emotionally if not intellectually. The Virtuoso, however, tries to get away with saying nothing at all.
In crime thrillers, the way in which the story unfolds is crucial because deep down the genre deals with the incomplete and contradictory nature of law. The hitman film reflects on ethics as well as economy: assassins kill for money but they adhere to a strict code of honour (“No women, no kids” as in Léon the Professional [Luc Besson, 1994]) and live an almost monk-like, solitary life in an effort to set themselves apart from ordinary killers. The best hitman movies reflect on the toll it takes to live the life of someone who murders people for a living.
The assassin as the main protagonist of his own crime sub-genre is a figure shrouded in mystery. From Alain Delon’s lonely assassin in Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967) to Brad Pitt’s mob-enforcer in Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012) – the hitman enters the narrative without a backstory or clearcut motives. He (although there are notable female assassins and the genre would do well to include more women) does his job, sticks to his code, stays away from other people. The hitman is a solitary figure, an urban cowboy with the difference that attachments are not just unwanted but deadly. The Virtuoso seems to hit all these marks only to miss them by a few inches.
Here and there, the film seems to subvert genre expectations only to back-paddle or never mention them again. There is, for instance, some hint at a backstory, a reason for the Virtuoso to do what he does but it is never explored further. As it is, The Virtuoso bends genre without awareness or concept making for a film that is as confusing as it is disappointing.
There are movies that do not bother with subverting expectations, that wear their genre like a badge of honour. The silly action set pieces of these movies ooze their own kind of charisma and are a blast to watch. The Virtuoso, however, takes itself very seriously. It features a tacked-on voice over (“You’re a professional, an expert devoted to timing and precision, a virtuoso“) that is, if anything, unintentionally hilarious. On a technical level, cinematography, visual effects, costumes, even hair and make up simply do not come together. There are many small oddities that would not even register on their own but combined make for poor filmmaking. In one scene, for instance, Anson Mount’s Virtuoso and Hopkins’ Mentor meet at a graveyard. Their conversation plays in shot reverse shot and at some point, Mount is lit in glowing later afternoon light while Hopkins continues to be lit in flat, relatively inconspicuous daylight. A detail such as this stands out only because the storytelling is not compelling enough to divert attention from it.
The Virtuoso is not compelling because it lacks an emotional core. A little bit of loneliness here, hints of a backstory (maybe some PTSD, who knows) there, a complicated family history, a hardly explored desire to leave the solitary hitman existence behind. These glimpses never establish an emotional connection to the Virtuoso. Even the stellar cast cannot convey what is not there. Living legend Sir Anthony Hopkins, Abbie Cornish, Eddie Marsan, Richard Brake (whose face, if not name, should be familiar as he was most recently seen in The Mandalorian), David Morse and Anson Mount are all good actors and it is a shame that they do not get to show more of their range and ability.
The Virtuoso is a constant reminder that making movies is hard. They are a communal effortbut there are many things that can go wrong along the way. Financing a film is not only risky but difficult especially without studio involvement. The Virtuoso is an independent movie, distributed by Lionsgate but produced mainly by director Nick Stagliano’s own Nazz Productions. The fact that the film exists is an accomplishment in and of itself. So if you should happen to stumble upon this film on a Friday night, if you are a fan of crime thrillers and you can do without emotional involvement or subtext, The Virtuoso provides you with just under two hours of entertainment. If not, you might prefer watching a classic hitman movie like Le Samouraï or Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004), and check out only the trailer for The Virtuoso. Not only does it showcase the best parts of the film, it actually is a better film.
Theresa Rodewald, MA, studied Cinema Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden and Cultural Studies in Germany and Ireland. She writes for a number of independent film magazines, including L-MAG and Berliner Filmfestivals, and has written about critiques of capitalism in current gangster films, images of masculinity in Scarface (1932) and the representation of queer women in mainstream cinema. She is a contributor to the forthcoming David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press).