Written by: Heidi Shepler | April 29th, 2021
The Virtuoso (Nick Stagliano, 2021) 1½ out of 4 stars.
No man is an island, not even an assassin. In Nick Stagliano’s The Virtuoso, we watch as glimmers of humanity creep back into the life of a lonely killer, and the dire consequences of his compassion. Unfortunately, this promising setup is derailed by intrusive second-person voice-over, a thin plot and murky characterization.
Action and thriller films are not known for treating women kindly, and the first shot of the film features a topless woman facing the window as she grinds on a man twice her age … seen through the lens of a sniper rifle; not encouraging. Most of the women in the film continue to be treated with contempt: a mob girlfriend raids her dead boyfriend’s wallet immediately after he’s been shot; a domestic abuse victim refuses help; a strong female character kicks ass and shows no emotion. Still, the men aren’t painted with any finer of a brush. Why does “The Virtuoso,” played by Anson Mount (AMC’s Hell on Wheels) become upset when he accidentally kills someone he doesn’t mean to? Why and how did he even become an assassin? We don’t know. A key plot point hinges on another character’s act of betrayal, but we don’t know the motivation for that, either.
However, what this film lacks in character motivation it makes up in atmosphere. The woods are deliciously gloomy, the diner is rustic, and the Virtuoso’s cabin is quiet and serene. The deliberately slow pacing of the film also allows for an incredible monologue from “The Mentor,” played by Anthony Hopkins (The Father), in which he recounts participating in a massacre in Vietnam (whatever flaws this film has, let no one deny that Anthony Hopkins has still got it). The story is harrowing, disgusting, and all the more disturbing because some version of that speech is almost certainly true. “Human beings, whatever we are, we’re just homicidal killing machines. And all the military training, that’s just finishing school,” he tells a horrified Virtuoso.
It’s the Virtuoso’s rejection of that idea that launches the rest of the plot. He seems almost desperate for some sense of connection. In one scene he makes friends with a stray dog that shows up at his cabin. In another, he practices expressions in the mirror, as if he’s forgotten that most people show emotion on their faces. Then, on the way to his next assignment, he meets “The Waitress,” played by Abbie Cornish (Where Hands Touch). She’s mysterious, confident and clearly very interested in him.
Naturally, everything goes haywire. While the Virtuoso is busy investigating all the other “players” he encounters and deciphering who he’s been sent to kill, the film is actually at its best. The pacing is tight, the fight scenes are very well shot, and we begin to see the outline of a larger plan at work. But then, in the final act, just when we’re beginning to think that the Virtuoso might have some chance of reclaiming his humanity, the film veers sharply back towards nihilism.
That humans are inherently violent is certainly not a unique worldview, and in a film that follows the career of an assassin, casual attitudes toward homicide are to be expected. But ultimately The Virtuoso tries too hard to impress us with how tough it is. That energy could have been better spent exploring the emotions of the characters. Or at least naming them.