You know you’re in the realm of the archetype when a movie’s closing credits favor descriptors over character names: The Waitress, The Loner, The Mentor — and, first and foremost, The Virtuoso‘s nameless title mercenary. Played by Anson Mount in a tight-jawed register, he’s a killer for hire whose armor is starting to crack, ever so slightly, after a hit gone wrong. But it takes more than a little guilt to stop a killer from killing, and it takes more than a handful of archetypes and a smorgasbord of film noir tropes to make a gripping drama.
Working from a screenplay by James Wolf that veers between the strained and the diverting, helmer Nick Stagliano (The Florentine, Good Day for It) has crafted a mildly intriguing genre exercise more than an involving story.
The focus is on character, but ultimately the dramatis personae feel like puzzle pieces rather than people. Still, within the self-conscious narrative mechanics, Mount (Star Trek: Discovery) manages to find a droll edge from time to time, Abbie Cornish injects some sexual heat, and Anthony Hopkins provides a bit of actorly gravitas, particularly in a nine-minute graveside monologue about what it means to be a good soldier.
Putting The Virtuoso behind the eight ball from the get-go, though, is an opening sequence so clotted with explanatory voiceover that it ends up feeling like an ad spoof for The Virtuoso! — your old-school gentleman killer. Mount’s impeccably put-together assassin elucidates it all for us: the weapons, the timing, the risks, the fees, the necessity of a non-USPS mailbox.
An accomplished professional who has never known any other way of life, he lives in a state of constant kill-or-be-killed readiness. A suspiciously cute dog starts showing up at his isolated, off-the-grid cabin, sparking the first hints that a heart is indeed beating beneath the handsome, affectless veneer. Before encounters with the general populace, Mount’s character practices basic human expressions in the mirror, feigning such reactions as interest, surprise and delight.
But it’s real emotions that leave the icy-smooth pro reeling, in his way (i.e., flashbacks and one good scream), after a quick-turnaround job results in gruesome collateral damage. His handler, aka The Mentor (Hopkins), assures him, less than convincingly, that “it’s me, not you” before explicating his cynical view of humanity and putting his protégé right back to work, this time in pursuit of a quarry so “special” that he can provide only the barest and most cryptic of identifying details.
Which leads to the puzzle sequence at the heart of the film: On a cold afternoon our hitman walks into a country diner, finds it more populated than he expected, and must figure out which of the patrons is his prey. Here the otherwise intrusive voiceover, with its insistence on stating the obvious as well as the extraneous, grows interesting. Putting DMV software and his deductive powers to work, the trained expert tries to read the room full of character-actor faces: a couple (Richard Brake, Diora Baird), a gun-packing loner (Eddie Marsan), a deputy sheriff (David Morse, who memorably played a small-town lawman in Sean Penn’s superb, Springsteen-inspired The Indian Runner).
The setup abounds in classic noir elements, from the roadside cafe with the sultry-eyed burger slinger (Cornish) to the edge-of-town motel manned by a jittery desk clerk. In the latter role Chris Perfetti delivers an engaging Norman Bates Lite turn, and the brief interactions between his flustered character and Mount’s executioner, trying to play normal, have a satisfyingly wry energy.
But the film is most alive, and its dialogue most effective, in the double-entendre-packed exchanges between Mount and a commandingly sensuous Cornish. Her waitress is at once grounded and mysterious, and she flirts with an exhilarating directness, almost melting the perma-paranoia of Mount’s assassin.
Shooting in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains and on California’s Central Coast, Stagliano and DP Frank Prinzi keep things fittingly simple rather than aiming for atmospheric flash. Their unfussy use of remote, woodsy settings suits the wintry story, which is strongest in its off-center observations and asides. The central puzzle fizzles more with each turn of the plot, and The Virtuoso finally feels like a game, a not particularly compelling brainteaser. The payoff makes sense, but it delivers far less than intended.
Production companies: Nazz Productions in association with 120db Films and Double Dutch International
Cast: Anson Mount, Abbie Cornish, Anthony Hopkins, David Morse, Eddie Marsan, Richard Brake, Diora Baird, Chris Perfetti
Director-producer: Nick Stagliano
Screenwriter: James Wolf
Executive producers: Fred Fuchs, Nancy Stagliano, Anson Mount, Steve Hays, Peter Graham, Chris Bongiorne, Jason Moring, Mark Padilla, Stanley Preschutti
Director of photography: Frank Prinzi
Production designer: Norm Dodge
Costume designer: Rita Squitiere
Editor: James LeSage
Music: Brooke Blair, Will Blair
Casting directors: Stephanie Holbrook, Diane Heery, Jason Loftus
Rated R, 110 minutes