Dir: Nick Stagliano. Starring: Anson Mount, Abbie Cornish, Anthony Hopkins, David Morse, Eddie Marsan, Richard Brake, Diora Baird. No cert, 110 min
To say that Anthony Hopkins rose to the occasion in The Father is a major understatement, as the British public will see on June 11, when Florian Zeller’s dementia drama is released. Hopkins’s Best Actor Oscar has crowned the moment: we’re incredibly lucky that that role came his way.
A more run-of-the-mill turn from Hopkins these days is something like his supporting part in The Virtuoso, a hitman thriller he shot slightly earlier. A pedestrian curio which sometimes threatens to be a little more interesting than it is, this is a strange, gloomy little piece about a career assassin, played by Star Trek: Discovery’s Anson Mount, who goes unnamed. Indeed, so does everyone. This silver fox is credited as “The Virtuoso” for his general steely professionalism, while Hopkins is “The Mentor”, a paymaster mainly seated behind a desk in his handful of moody scenes, with a mobile phone and whisky glass to hand.
When someone needs killing, Hopkins sets up the gig, and Mount gets the call: in the opening, the latter is seen using a sniper rifle to surgically execute a target in the middle of sex. The woman gets away unscathed, for such is this operative’s careful modus operandi – but not before being frontally splashed with the dead man’s blood, a lewd bonus to which the film treats any viewer who likes that sort of thing.
In between hits, Mount’s hired gun leads a solitary life in a woodland cabin, with just a stray bearded collie for company. Other than checking in with The Mentor from time to time, his main obligation is uttering the film’s amusingly pretentious voiceover to himself – a set of reminders and mottoes delivered in the second person. “Collateral damage. It happens. You know that.” When he computes that the entirety of the world’s current 7 billion population will be dead in 130 years anyway, he reassures himself that “your work doesn’t even equate to a rounding error”.
Mount’s performance is curious, and then some. It’s neither good nor exactly bad. His brooding narration makes him sound like the hero in a dated open-world computer game full of rain and wrong turns. There’s something of the replicant about him: at one point, he tries to practise smiling in the mirror, and a weird, robotic rictus is the best he can do. We’ve seen men of this chilly breed played by George Clooney (in The American), Ben Affleck (in The Accountant) and Sean Penn (in The Gunman). They’re all guys who don’t get out of bed unless there’s a definite article in the title.
For The Virtuoso’s latest assignment, he drives cross-country to a roadside diner in the middle of nowhere (the film was partly shot in Scranton, Pennsylvania). Only one clue is given about whom he’s meant to eliminate: the words “White Rivers”, scrawled by The Mentor on a scrap of paper. A gaggle of possible targets are propping up the place, including The Loner (Eddie Marsan), The Deputy (David Morse) and The Waitress (Abbie Cornish), a cheery flirt who proceeds to hit on Mount with the fastest moves imaginable outside an early 1990s Sharon Stone vehicle.
One by one, Mount sets about stalking these marks, without getting much closer to the solution or quickening the film’s pulse beyond an even heartbeat. Director and co-writer Nick Stagliano tries to wax serious about the business of killing, but the trouble is, he hasn’t written any characters who scan as real people. At the same time, the film’s redundant style doesn’t propel us into the sordid genre world of a Sin City. It’s workaday assassin noir.
There’s one monologue that sticks out – the only lengthy scene for Hopkins, who finds The Virtuoso at his father’s grave near the start, and makes an unlikely attempt to console him (unless it’s more of a veiled warning) by recounting a grim memory of Vietnam war crimes. The speech is just eccentric enough to give Hopkins some legitimate purchase on it, and for the span of that one scene, the film flickers to life with semi-intriguing, melancholic potential.
That’s all down to the double-Oscar-winner’s way with distant sorrow, long-buried remorse. It’s not fair to say that Hopkins phones in all his lesser performances, when he has so evidently drilled these lines down into himself and wrestled to make them work. Making the best of a shabby job? Funnily enough, even if it all too rarely heeds its own brief, that’s what The Virtuoso is all about.
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