Isolation is something every person has become more familiar with over the past year. Keeping distance from others is now more common than any other time in recent history. Deliberate rituals and protocols keep us safe from harm. Human contact is thoughtfully considered and weighed against the risk it causes. All those things have become the everyday reality for reasonable people as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be an issue worldwide. The world has become a little lonelier in ways it may possibly never fully recover from. I was reminded of all these things as I watched THE VIRTUOSO, a film clearly made before the pandemic but that still feels so deeply rooted in the shared trauma of the here and now.
The story focuses on a meticulous assassin (Anson Mount, HELL ON WHEELS), whose conscience is weighing heavy after a recent bit of “collateral damage” from an earlier job, who has now been tasked with a hit where the pay is high but the details are frustratingly scarce. All he has is a name, a date, and a remote winterly location. Complicating matters further is the fact that he isn’t the only one looking to eliminate the mysterious target.
The “hitman haunted by his past deeds” concept is by no means a fresh idea. What causes it to work here is the details in the material and how that material is approached. THE VIRTUOSO is a film that is deeply interested in the thought process of a main character that has been numbed to human interaction by years of violence and careful obfuscation to avoid discovery or capture. Mount’s nameless hitman rarely speaks directly to others, for example. A near-constant, yet measured, inner monologue is the primary tool used to provide insight into the character for the audience throughout the film. His thoughts are a mix of procedural details and detached observations with only the occasional bit of humanity seeping through. This stylistic choice coupled with Mount’s haunting gaze that seems to beg for connection while also being acutely aware that everything in his world is potentially dangerous feels very relatable after a long stint in pandemic quarantine. All of this works so well because of Anson Mount’s full commitment to the role. He nails the writerly voiceover and tense physicality of the protagonist and makes it feel like an understandable extension of a man who feels more at ease field-stripping and reassembling a firearm by himself than he does engaging with the outside world.
Everything about the outside world of the film feels filtered through the protagonist’s stilted outlook though. No one has proper names here. That would indicate a layer of familiarity and ease that cannot be afforded to dangerous people after all. The environments as well are sparse and devoid of comfort. Everything feels as isolating as roads cut off by a winter storm. Even things that seem like a respite from the darkness; a warm well-lit diner on the outskirts of town can potentially hold secret dangers. Are the people there harmless and safe or should distance be kept? There is no margin for error, no place to be at ease. The only security comes in being prepared, except here instead of face masks and hand sanitizer- it’s a knife stealthfully hidden up a jacket sleeve or a well-maintained pistol carefully obscured.
THE VIRTUOSO populates its paranoid, covertly hostile world with characters that are thinly sketched but are brought to life by an exceptional cast of actors that give them a real sense of life beyond the skewed viewpoint of Mount’s hitman. Richard Brake (3 FROM HELL), David Morse (THE GREEN MILE), and Eddie Marsan (THE WORLD’S END) all play parts that in lesser actors’ hands would barely register but here when each man eventually collides with Mount’s protagonist there is a tension and energy to the scenes, that when coupled with skillful work by director Nick Stagliano, elevate the seemingly simple genre elements on display into something truly compelling.
The rest of the main cast is completed by two-time Academy Award winner Sir Anthony Hopkins (THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) as the liaison and mentor to the lead character and Abbie Cornish (SUCKER PUNCH) as the sole employee of the diner that acts as the place where most of the players in the story are first introduced. Hopkins’ inclusion in the cast is the most surprising but he treats the material with respect and is clearly enjoying himself when the film allows him to really sink his teeth into a monologue about past wartime atrocities that act as a parallel to the traumatic experiences of the lead. Hopkins’ schedule was obviously very tight, but he brings an off-kilter quality to his brief time on screen that works as a look into what the future may hold for Mount’s unnamed killer if he stays on this path of violence, isolation, and paranoia. Cornish’s role in the story acts as a vital counterbalance to Hopkins. She personifies the warmth and affection that can come from risking contact, both physical and emotional- the joy of a loving embrace long denied or the sweetness of shared, intimate laughter.
In the world of THE VIRTUOSO, that hope and the dangers associated with taking the risk involved with fulfilling it are ever present though. The lead must decide, like the audience does every day in these trying times, whether that risk is worth the potential loss of life. The film offers no easy answers to that and its somber, longing tone may be too oppressive for some viewers. Those with the patience for it though will be rewarded with an engaging small-scale crime story that overachieves and just happened to arrive at the perfect time for its themes to hit with all the impact of a well-placed bullet between the eyes. In that respect, THE VIRTUOSO does not miss. (3/5)
“THE VIRTUOSO is Available in Select Theaters and Everywhere You Rent Movies on April 30th; on Blu-ray and DVD May 4th!”