Sympathy for Devils

Empathy for killers, sort of, in “Hit Man” and “In a Violent Nature.”

“Hit Man” finds filmmaker Richard Linklater bending the rom-com template to suit his discursive rhythms. The film feels profoundly casual in the tradition of many Linklater joints, less concerned in this case with being a romantic thriller than with offering winding discussions of the implications of its plot. It’s this tempo that often puts Linklater in danger of being taken for granted. That tempo — a “one thing after another” vibe with room for actors to riff while a plot coalesces seemingly by accident — is Linklater’s great contribution to cinema. You can luxuriate in Linklater’s movies.

“Hit Man” is a comedy of attraction and misdirection, with Glen Powell as a professor, Gary Johnson, who acts undercover as a hit man for law enforcement in New Orleans. Though the law denies it, Johnson is in the business of entrapment, coercing desperate people into paying him to kill friends, lovers, and rivals. Linklater offers many juicy procedural and behavioral details as to how this trap works. Once the marks broker the contract, the law descends and arrests them for murders never committed a la a real world “Minority Report.”

Gary banters with a beautiful woman, Madison (Adira Arjona), who wants her abusive husband killed. Their attraction palpable, Gary talks Madison out of hiring him, keeping law enforcement at bay. They fall into an affair, and Gary must maintain a balance between his real self and his alter ego. Madison thinks he’s “Ron,” a sexy hit man who emits the self-confidence that is on the verge of making Powell a movie star, while Gary is a well-meaning nerd who is stuck in his head. He tells his classes to live life to its fullest and they laugh in his face at the irony.

 

A conventional movie would play up the possibility of the law discovering that Gary is using his gig to get laid, and of Madison discovering that Ron isn’t real. A farce would ensue until everything is sorted, and, indeed, that all sort of happens. But Linklater, who wrote the script with Powell, based loosely on a nonfiction article by Skip Hollandsworth for “Texas Monthly,” plays a trickier game than this plot suggests.

“Hit Man” is concerned with flimsiness of personality. Do we have a core identity or are we mushrooms who assume the flavor of the context that engulfs us at the moment? Is the truth of that malleability damning or freeing? Gary can be Ron simply because he says he is. Perhaps in that old saw, “fake it ‘til you make it,” is an existential truth. Powell cleverly allows Ron to gradually overtake more and more of his performance.

Gary as Ron is an extreme symbol of the roleplay that governs much of our lives. Who doesn’t turn the dials of their personal variables up and down based on who they’re with and the situation? Are you the same person with your partner that you are with your grandmother? This flexing is social adaptation 101, though “Hit Man” suggests that roleplay forges deeper self-mythologies that allow us to live with ourselves.

Gary and Madison’s relationship is driven entirely by nesting roleplays. Within the roles they immediately assume for one another — that of the cool-dude alpha and the femme fatale — there are other flimsier roles for the occasion at hand, whether it’s for sex or in the service of the fiction that they will maintain certain “rules” about their relationship in order to keep it casual. If we can be adult enough to acknowledge the fluidity of our personalities, we should be able to face the fact that there are few true “rules” in the battlefields in love and sex. Linklater is attentive to these self-deceptions.

These textual buoys float around in “Hit Man” gingerly. Scene by scene, it’s a sexy hang-out movie, a victory lap for Powell and a coming-out party for the equally confident Arjona. This is the sort of thing that many of us have been asking for: a return to stars being stars, with glamour and sexual electricity and a minimum of plot to get in their way. Gary and Madison are insatiably horny for each other, which is unusual for an American movie. In that fashion, and in the relaxed tempo, “Hit Man” reminded me a bit of “Bull Durham.” And reminding me of one of the greatest romantic comedies in all of American cinema is not a bad move for a modern movie.

This casualness is going to be the litmus test for people with “Hit Man.” You’re either going to find the breezy treatment of serious issues subversive, as I did, or wonder if Linklater is squandering promising subject matter with a silly star vehicle. The tonal emphases here are unusual. As with the filmmakers of the French New Wave that Linklater adores, talk is action. Gary and Madison might be hot AF, but it’s the verbal foreplay that gets them in the red first, as it was with the lovers of Linklater’s “Before” trilogy. The same goes with the violence here, which is preceded by flip talk that shows the characters working themselves up to murder in what feels like real time. The blend of jocularity and violence is funny and chilling.

The Hollandsworth article is concerned with Gary’s broadening empathy. He is a nerd and a loner with an absolutist view of the law who gradually opens up to society. Hollandsworth hits these notes very delicately; his piece has the implicative, slow-dawning force of a Raymond Carver story. Linklater, who adapted another Hollandsworth article into another screwball murder cocktail several years earlier with “Bernie,” is interested in a glitzier and more fantastic fable of moral relativity.

Gary and Madison break one of the chief strictures of our social contract for convenience and realize that they can return to society to live their bougie lives apparently un-haunted. They do something radical to actualize. Linklater treats their actions as a lark, which only renders their darkness darker. Repeat, there are no rules. Well, there are no rules if you are a star. “Hit Man” is connected in its way to the American madness of star-worship, sexual obsession, and above all our narcissistic drive to live our “best life” at the potential expense of everything else.

 

This summer’s first buzzy horror movie, “In a Violent Nature,” I found quite a bit easier to shrug off. It’s an example of a filmmaker with chops doubling down on a premise that you will find either brilliant or pointless. Writer-director Chris Nash’s notion here is to make a “Friday the 13th”-type movie from a Jason-type’s point of view, following a masked colossus as he wanders a nearly abandoned camp killing young adults interchangeably after a few of them steal from him a magic locket. There’s a reason why filmmakers usually stick with the randy campers: their crude jokes and sexual hijinks are more fun to watch than the interminable marches of a silent maniac.

Nash’s monster, fitting the Jason mythos, has no inner life, and so we are chained for 90 minutes to a non-entity. The killings are flamboyantly brutal but have little sense of suspense. This is all purposeful. Nash has made a movie that’s less a slasher than a slow-cinema study of the genre’s mechanics. He draws sequences out, dissecting them so that we can see how they work. In one instance, Nash authentically finds a new way for mining suspense. The monster walks into a lake in the foreground of an image, submerges into the water toward the swimming campers in the deep background, and Nash holds the shot for an eternity as we wait for the monster to get his prey. That moment has a godless bite, although even here the punchline is bizarrely whiffed.

Nash is eerily good at capturing the campfire atmosphere of a “Friday the 13th” movie, which was always their best quality, and he’s got an equally canny instinct for the fraught noodling about that animates slow cinema. The funny thing about “In a Violent Nature” is that it reveals true similarities between slow cinema and D-horror movies, suggesting that both are about the long interminable waiting in between moments of stimulation. Both forms of cinema suggest that “waiting” is most of our existence, whether we’re a horny-sexy camper, a paunchy manager at Papa’s Johns, or an unkillable emissary of the undead. Is Jason one of us, God’s lonely creatures?

It’s more diverting to toss that stuff around retrospectively than it is to sit through this stultifying, freeze-dried movie. Just when you think that “In a Violent Nature” can’t get any slower, Nash springs a sequence with a “Friday the 13th” veteran that wears its pointlessness proudly. Yes, the purpose that’s meant to be conjured upon contemplation is easy enough to discern: this conversation is marked by the dread of what might, but of course doesn’t, happen. I confess to not knowing what’s meant to be gleaned from disconnecting a visceral genre so decisively from its means of generating excitement though. I also confess to resenting this movie’s good reviews, when more empathetic treatments of slasher mythos, namely Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II,” have been vilified.

Underneath the stylish confidence of “In a Violent Nature” is something that’s about as ludicrous and self-conscious as “Sasquatch Sunset.” But, then again, there are no rules. A masturbating Sasquatch or a lonely Jason Jr. may be your Glen Powell.

“Hit Man” is now on Netflix. “In a Violent Nature” is in theaters everywhere.

TRENDING

WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW — straight to your inbox

* indicates required
Our mailing lists: