Photo: ‘The Virtuoso’/Lionsgate
I know one thing for certain: this movie is an experience and a perplexing experience at that. While watching the film, I kept asking myself: is this real? Is this really the movie? And it is, all of it, the good and the bad, because this movie is some combination of both good and bad, falling somewhere between the “so bad, it’s good” or so bad it’s bad disambiguation. I still haven’t made up my mind, but it’s definitely not good in the classic sense of “good”. But who wants to be good when you’re a paid killer?
Well, the Virtuoso, played by a steely Anson Mount, just might want to be, and this desire becomes the main source of conflict in the film, both emotionally and narratively; so the film is as much about the Virtuoso’s potential redemption as it is anything else. Viewed from this perspective, I won’t frame this review in terms of good and bad but in terms of redemption: is this film, like its main character, worthy of redemption? Is it worth redeeming? Is it redeeming in any way?
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O, to Know What’s Going on in That Head of Yours!
It’s evident that from the opening scene that voiceover is the principal formal device used in the film – an effective, probably the most effective, device for giving the viewer access to the subject’s consciousness and all the gruesome little thoughts contained therewithin, and the Virtuoso must think, think a lot, and think thoughtfully because, as the hitman says about doing a job: “It’s all about precision and timing”. It’s like music, get it? In this way, the Virtuoso narrates the story much like our favorite anti-hero from Netflix’s ‘You’, Joe Goldberg, (or is it Will Bettelheim?) the self-righteous sociopath, always able to justify his narcissism and its sometimes violent manifestations for causes of obsession, compulsion, an obsessive-compulsive love.
Here too, the Virtuoso almost autistically tries to find meaning for his actions, meaning in the wake of his actions, until, ultimately, he can’t anymore and chooses to act against his conscience, or maybe develops one? Because the Virtuoso is probably not like you and me (besides living a highly regimented and secluded life as a hitman out in the middle of the woods); he has to practice smiling in the mirror, to practice at being human. Murder-for-hire is his natural talent after all. So, when he’s forced to try and find meaning in the wake of his actions, forced to feel the weight of collateral damage, it’s reality, the reality of a mistake, the ones we all make but are, for him, almost alien, forced to feel the burden of a buried or emergent conscience, the Virtuoso becomes a more sympathetic, and even devilishly charming, because he still wants to see a certain logic in his actions and, at the same time, acts against that logic; and there’s nothing more human than that paradox, that contradiction; and Anson Mount plays this within this paradox perfectly: perfectly flat, imperfectly human.
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That said, the one person’s mind that I’d like access to the most but can’t, for obvious reasons, is director Nick Stagliano’s. Stagliano, who operates on the periphery of Hollywood, to me, is an enigma, an unknown, and he channels this enigmatic energy into the film in strange effect. The film is, on the surface, a straight-up thriller, at least it’s marketed that way, but watching the film is an entirely different experience.
There are aspects of a thriller in this film, in its aesthetic, but it’s more than that; the tense atmosphere of a thriller unfolds here almost into parody, executed as if the film was a black comedy, descending into moments of such melodrama that the film couldn’t appear to be anything other than a comedy, soap right out of a David Lynch movie; and Sir Anthony Hopkins, fresh off his upset Oscars win over Chadwick Boseman for Best Actor, is at the center of it: in his first scene, Hopkins, playing the Mentor, sits at a desk in big, black glasses, awaiting the Virtuoso’s call like he’s some kind of (and I don’t know a better way of phrasing this) pimp-daddy. It’s a totally absurd image and extremely funny.
The film makes you laugh at Sir Anthony Hopkins!: how could it be anything other than a black comedy? And in another scene, this scene being the reason, I’d assume, Hopkins accepted the role, unless he’s a personal friend of Stagliano’s or someone else who worked on the film, the Mentor poignantly reflects on his murderous past, recounting the horrors of war to the Virtuoso, as the Virtuoso struggles with his failures, and it would be a poignant moment in the film, except the scene is done to such excess that it really can’t be poignant; but it is funny: the phantom chopper blades rotating in the soundscape, across time, a spectre of the past. But here’s the funniest thing of all: it all kind of works as a black comedy, and, if someone said that this film was a black comedy instead of a thriller, then it might be getting better reviews right now.
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‘The Virtuoso’ – Netflix Is Paying Hundreds of Millions for This Kind of Thing
So, what’s a thriller that’s lost its bite? A “whodunnit” movie! Comedy, like everything in life, is extremely subjective: what’s funny for me might not be funny for you and vice-versa. So, while, in my mind, this movie works as a black comedy, others might not see it that way, especially when the “authority” behind the film doesn’t say it is, but the film definitely does become a whodunnit after the Virtuoso is given another kill-contract, this time for an unnamed target at a bar in the middle of a dead-end town, a bar full of suspicious characters, any one of whom could be the target and a chance at redemption for the Virtuoso. But what’s a killer who’s lost his edge? A target.
Though the whodunnit doesn’t unfold as masterfully or with the complexity of something like Rian Johnson’s ‘Knives Out’, it is entertaining as much as it is obvious who that target actually is, and, yes, sometimes that target is your patience; but if you stick the movie out, well, then your patience is all the better for it, not necessarily because the film is worth your time (again, it depends on if you find it humorous or not) but because a little virtuosic discipline can be good for you.
Unlike ‘Knives Out’ or other whodunnits like ‘Clue’, this film is violent, violent in a way that a film about an assassin should be, violent in the best way. One thing that’s missing in the modern action movie are practical effects, a practical approach to violence: blood-squibs. This is something that holds a film like ‘John Wick’ and its sequels back, preventing them from becoming the classics that people think they are, because CGI-blood just doesn’t have a blood-squibs’ corporeality.
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Again, from the first scene, it’s obvious that the special effects in the film are handled with care, aside from one questionable moment, and it makes a palpable difference in the film’s action; it gives the action a weight that usually isn’t present when a film uses computer graphics for their special effects. If you can’t feel the action, then it’s harder to feel everything behind that action, the meaning, the emotions, and that makes all the difference in a film, especially in a movie like this, one that’s just as conflicted as the Virtuoso himself (and as violent too).
To Be Redeemed or Not to Be Redeemed, That Is the Question
In this film, the Virtuoso must become the virtuous if he hopes to find that elusive, flighty, and fleeting bird called redemption, and while I can’t say if he is able to capture its soaring shape, I can say that the film has redeeming qualities, that the film is not beyond redemption as things stand right now, that it’s a matter of perspective, of finding qualities in the film that have value; and, as such, I think that this film is worthy of redemption; but I don’t think it will be redeemed. There are too many other virtuosos out there with their targets set on this film to let that happen. Maybe this film will fare better in the afterlife, amongst the likes of ‘The Room’ or other “so bad, they’re good” movies? Or maybe the film will be stuck in film purgatory, amongst the many other films trapped between good and bad, trapped in a cinematic wasteland? In either case, we were the ones that sent it there.
Actors: Anson Mount, Anthony Hopkins, Abbie Cornish
Director: Nick Stagliano ⏐ Screenplay by: James Wolf ⏐ Producers: Nick Stagliano, Marc Jacobson⏐ Director of Photography: Frank Prinzi
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