What’s it like in the mind of a cold-blooded assassin?
The Virtuoso gives us a glimpse inside as Anson Mount’s titular hitman is sent on a job like no other. Haunted by a botched job that has left him shaken to say the least, Mount takes on a new assignment. His target? The mysterious White River – a man he knows nothing about. Sent to a rural American town in search of answers, this sets up a neat reverse whodunnit, where we’re constantly guessing who his target is – and whether he’ll manage to take them out. But a chance encounter with an alluring waitress, played by Abbie Cornish, quickly throws a spanner in the works. It’s an interesting concept that’s dripping with noir cliché – in a good way. The remote American town is the perfect setting for a murder or two, with a feeling almost reminiscent of Fargo. And with a weird, jarring second person narration that puts us front and centre in each of the assassin’s thoughts, it’s quite an interesting approach to what could be a run of the mill thriller. Director Nick Stagliano has clearly put together an interesting concept. The problem is, The Virtuoso isn’t particularly well executed.
Don’t get me wrong – Anson Mount cuts an impressive figure as the mostly-silent assassin. And fresh off Sunday’s Oscar win for The Father, Anthony Hopkins clearly loves hamming it up in a very different role here, as a well-meaning but rather sinister-sounding mentor, too. And there are enough weirdly-interesting qualities to The Virtuoso to keep you hooked. But the script could be a bit tighter, especially when it comes to our hitman’s inner thoughts. Often the narration comes off as a bit clunky, with vast chunks of exposition laid out bare. It’s often not entirely necessary either, with one particular thought about DMV license plate searches feeling entirely out of place and a bloody odd thing to be thinking about.
But in other places, it really works – a calculated breakdown of his modus operandi as the hitman prepares a lethal cocktail of drugs only serves to amplify the tension. When used well, this technique pays off. Overused, it becomes a bit lame. And sadly, The Virtuoso fails to get the balance quite right. Elsewhere, the script generally suffers from some clunky dialogue. But every now and then it serves up a line such as this: “The heart beats two and a half billion times during the average lifetime. But there’s only one beat that really matters – the next one.” It’s these moments that really make Anson Mount’s performance. And his low-key, hushed tones really add to the fact that this is a man who lives his life in the shadows. But again, far too much is explained out loud – a tighter script and economical direction would have paid off here.
Still, we watch the titular Virtuoso carry out his mission step by step. And it gets really interesting when The Virtuoso plays up to its noir thriller elements. The hitman’s investigation takes him digging through three potential suspects looking for his man… and things soon begin to unravel when the deaths begin. Anson Mount manages to keep it all together with a grim, stoic take as the hitman relies on his training to make order out of the chaos. And speaking of his training, Anthony Hopkins is a delight as the hitman’s mentor – with a long, hammy monologue as he keeps a sinister eye on proceedings.
There are some very stylish scenes in The Virtuoso, too – a late night shootout in the woods with a backdrop of snow and headlights leans heavily on the Fargo-esque noir tropes, and it really works. But The Virtuoso ultimately fails to pull all of these threads together. It often feels as though there are several good ideas that don’t join together, and the result is a mish-mash of techniques that doesn’t quite work.
At the heart of it, there’s an interesting concept marred by an odd story and a lot of wonky dialogue. A stylish design and slick camera work can only go so far – The Virtuoso suffers as overwriting and strange directorial choices dominate the film. It’s still an interesting movie, and it could have been a great one – but as it stands, The Virtuoso is less accomplished than it should have been.
The Virtuoso is on Digital Download from 30 April, 2021 and available on DVD from 10 May, 2021 (from Lionsgate)