Written by Tom Augustine.

The films of Richard Linklater have lost some of their cultural potency of late. Perhaps that’s to be expected – in this era of flashbang, hypersaturated cinema, Linklater’s humble, script-focused auteurism simply isn’t en vogue. The Texan filmmaker has long existed on the borderline of mainstream and arthouse, supplementing his bro-philosophical, time-tinkering experiments like Boyhood, the Before Trilogy and sibling films Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!! with broader numbers like School of Rock and Where’d You Go, Bernadette?. But Linklater lacks the self-seriousness and capital I ‘importance’ that modern cinemagoers associate with the auteur – the films aren’t astonishing feats of cinematography, nor incendiary blockbusters, nor self-consciously weird, transgressive shock flicks – which is perhaps why his latest, the brilliant black rom-com Hit Man, has been left to moulder on Netflix in spite of glowing notices. It’s a shame, as Hit Man is perhaps the Linklater creation most adept at straddling those two modes – arthouse and entertainment. There’s enough depth to plumb for those looking for it, but it also functions well as an intensely enjoyable crowdpleaser along the lines of his fellow ‘90s brat Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight


Co-written by its star, the film sees Glen Powell assuming the role of Gary Johnson, a real person who briefly helped Louisiana police identify and arrest murderous members of the local citizenry by posing as a hitman for hire. The film takes this original story and spools it out – Powell’s Johnson, a milquetoast philosophy professor, finds joy and freedom in the intricate crafting of new identities for each of his marks, curating the perfect hit man for their needs. Sometimes, he’s a greasy American Psycho-style automaton; other times he’s a tatted libertarian redneck; other times still he’s a creepy doll-like psycho with an alarming similarity to Tilda Swinton; or how about a shaggy-haired Russian executioner? Part of the fun of Hit Man is watching Powell cycle through these roles, finding liberation in the way the trappings of his identity suddenly become fluid. Is it ethical? Not really – the word ‘entrapment’ springs to mind – but then, Johnson isn’t the most ethical sort. Case and point: this joyous new outlet Johnson has discovered is thrown into chaos when he falls hard for one of his marks, the battered and bullied housewife Madison (Andor’s Adria Arjona), who hires Johnson to take out her abusive husband. The sudden, fiery attraction between Madison and Johnson’s invented persona, Ron, is absolutely undeniable, and Johnson-as-Ron attempts to convince Madison not to commit to the hit. It’s too late, however – Madison’s husband turns up dead, and all fingers point to Madison herself as having done the job.  

Sentenced to the lamentable fate of a straight-to-Netflix release, the latest film from American auteur Richard Linklater deserves to be seen with the biggest, liveliest audience possible. Featuring compelling lead turns from rising stars Glen Powell and Adria Arjona, this freewheeling, screwball romantic comedy doubles as a fascinating inquiry into the shifting nature of identity.

The burning core of Hit Man is the remarkable chemistry of its two leads, whose twisted romance is an enthralling, erotic delight, particularly in a sex-starved and somewhat puritanical modern cinema landscape. Arjona more than holds her own against Powell, who is delivering a multi-faceted performance seemingly designed to showcase his ultra-charismatic, chameleonic abilities. Arjona’s Madison begins the film meek, only to find herself as liberated by Johnson’s fakery as he is. This initially takes the form of primal sexual hunger, but the perverse thrill of proximity to violence is just as tantalising to Madison, the overwhelming intoxication of their transgressions escalating as the film goes on and a slimeball of a local cop (Everybody Wants Some!!’s Austin Amelio) gets on their tail. True to Linklater’s style, the film is entirely rooted in these characters and their interplay, the sparkling script borrowing the walk-and-talk magic of the Before series in spades, as interested in the characters’ conversational foreplay as any kind of diabolical scheming. The audience begins to realise that for all the screwball antics of Johnson’s cover-up, there’s a real darkness here both in the constant deception that Johnson employs and in the deception the two begin to conjure together, paying the cost in blood. 


Linklater himself is being deceptive, too: there’s much here that slyly undercuts the suggestion that the director has little on his mind beyond fun. Those dismissing the film’s lighthearted approach and slick, middlebrow camera-work seem to be missing the cunning of the film’s design – its simple outer appearance hiding some genuinely fascinating personal and ethical quandaries. This is made most apparent in a striking sequence toward the end of the film (and I’ll be light on spoilers), in which our lovers have a warm, cathartic and romantic conversation in the foreground as another character slowly dies out of focus in the background. It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s woozily sexy – but it’s also disturbing. Linklater has crafted a movie for grown-ups, one that doesn’t hold the audience’s hand in providing any sort of moral judgement for its characters. Hit Man understands that through art we are able to probe the darker and less likeable parts of our psyche, even delight in them. The shakiness of Johnson’s moral standing is the point. 

What a terrible shame, then, that one of the best romantic comedies in years festers in the doldrums of straight-to-streaming. A cinema audience is not just ideal for the heat-seeking missile that is Hit Man, it’s nigh-on essential. The ultimate example is the remarkable climactic sequence, that brings all the escalating tension to a head, as Johnson must keep his fiction alive on the fly under the direst circumstances. It’s a profoundly cinematic sequence, complete with a stand-up-and-cheer finale. That energy still exists on a home system or a laptop, but it’s like a reheated leftover of the real thing. When I say that this is a film designed for the cinema, a format New Zealanders lamentably won’t be able to see Hit Man in, this isn’t to discourage you from watching it at home – though getting a big audience together will undoubtedly boost your mileage – but rather an entreaty to watch it. Much has been made of the supposed unwillingness of audiences to venture outside of their homes for anything that doesn’t meet a certain level of spectacle. The whizz-bang effects of Hit Man are ones of voice, character and interplay, not explosions or aliens or caped crusaders. To my mind, both meet the threshold of appropriateness for the big-screen experience. Without variety, the cinema becomes simply another theme park, and romantic comedies are one of the most ideal formats for the communal, collective experience of the movies. All we can hope is that validating a film as worthy as this might convince the powers-that-be that future efforts deserve the format for which they’re clearly designed.

Hit Man is available on Netflix now.


Hit Man

Movie title: Hit Man (Linklater, 2024)

Movie description: Sentenced to the lamentable fate of a straight-to-Netflix release, the latest film from American auteur Richard Linklater deserves to be seen with the biggest, liveliest audience possible. Featuring compelling lead turns from rising stars Glen Powell and Adria Arjona, this freewheeling, screwball romantic comedy doubles as a fascinating inquiry into the shifting nature of identity.

Date published: June 20, 2024

Country: United States

Author: Richard Linklater, Glen Powell, Skip Hollandsworth

Director(s): Richard Linklater

Actor(s): Glen Powell, Adria Ajorna,

Genre: Comedy, Crime, Romance

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