Dead men walking: 'The Virtuoso'

A hitman tries to keep his boss happy in The Virtuoso

The virtuoso, a hired killer, knows his game well enough: Get in, get out, but show no urgency. Trust your planning and your accuracy. He’s got it down to a science. He even knows how long it will take before a witness calls for help and the time it takes for the police to be dispatched. He strikes from a distance, shooting his target through a window from an unlit hotel room across the street and exits, unhurriedly. He’s blocks away before the sirens even start to sound.

And we never know his name.

In director Nick Stagliano’s gritty crime thriller, he’s simply the Virtuoso. As played by actor Anson Mount, he’s emotionless, save for his bitterness. Even his speech is monotone, as empty of humanity as his soul.

This cloak-and-dagger thriller keeps you guessing to the point when the rules of the game become clear to the viewer, even if the characters are still in the dark. It’s an expertly crafted story of a hitman caught up in a deadly scheme. He works under the auspices of a severe mentor, also unnamed, played with shivery menace by Anthony Hopkins behind dark sunglasses. When he gives the Virtuoso a delicate new assignment, he warns him, “Do not put me in a bad position.” No matter how far back their relationship goes (and it goes back a long way), Hopkins’ character wouldn’t hesitate to off his younger protégé should he mess up. He’s not a man to cross.

The Virtuoso is a solid thriller. At its heart is an ominous, serpentine performance by Hopkins, who can deliver a moving speech to the younger man and end it with a sting in the tail, as though the entire thing were carefully thought out to manipulate the protégé into seeing the world through his mentor’s nihilistic eyes.

In part, it’s a story about one man’s awakening and the discovery of his capacity to feel. It’s an old school, cat-and-mouse crime story in which one false move makes the difference between life and death, which gives Mount’s character arc a feeling of desperation. Ironically, a screw-up early on triggers his emotions, causing him to doubt himself. And his humanity slowly starts to creep in.

He’s is a classic antihero. And, while the viewer gets caught up in the plot, wanting him to succeed and emerge victorious, his newfound capacity for love could be the very thing that seals his fate.

Most of the action is set in an unremarkable country town where an unnamed waitress (Abbie Cornish) works at a diner. It’s the same eatery where the Virtuoso is assigned to kill his mark: another hitman. But Mount’s character only has the time and the location, not the identity of the mark. His target could be anybody.

And therein lies the key to the setup. As the unpredictable nature of his human emotions vies with his methodical, orderly approach to duty, he must call on all his wits and ingenuity to survive. Complicating things are his feelings for the waitress, played by Cornish as someone who’s seen enough of life’s pain that she’s become jaded and resigned to an undistinguished life. In a way, she’s a lot like him.

You might see the twist coming a mile away. But that doesn’t detract from the message. It wouldn’t be a noir if it weren’t tinged — if not by tragedy — by pitiful events. And maybe that’s the point. These anonymous people can’t escape the nature of their fates or their deeds. The game they play has a point of no return, and they’ve passed it. Crime thriller, rated R, 110 minutes, streaming on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Fandango NOW, 3.5 chiles

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