starring Anson Mount, Abbie Cornish, Eddie Marsan, Anthony Hopkins
screenplay by James C. Wolf
directed by Nick Stagliano
by Walter Chaw 25 minutes into Nick Stagliano's very serious The Virtuoso, our erstwhile The American assassin, the unnamed virtuoso in question (Anson Mount), receives a note inscribed with what appears to be a child's handwriting (it isn't, which is only one reason why it's funny) telling him who his next target will be. As the Virtuoso, in his own second-person narration, lays out some ground rules in a world-weary, Fight Club-aspiring way, we see him burning what is obviously a different piece of paper in the fireplace. One might wonder about the sleight-of-hand happening here: Is Virtuoso, recently traumatized by a job gone tragically (and hilariously) wrong, looking to screw his mentor The Mentor (Anthony Hopkins) by holding on to the Mission: Impossible message intended for self-destruction? Will this slip of incriminating paper be the "check and mate" of a twisty noir's mind-bending puzzle-box? Or is it a simple continuity error they either didn't notice or figured didn't really matter because the audience will be too dazzled by the clockwork precision of the compulsive, extravagant-to-the-point-of-self-satire script? You're smart. When we're done here, you tell me which one it is.
If it's a noir, there's a fatale and she's Dixy (Abbie Cornish), the sharp-talking waitress who knows trouble when she sees it--after all, she tells Virtuoso, she's looking at him, isn't she--but somehow mistakes Virtuoso's robotic lack of affect for sexual interest. "Guess I misread the signals back there," she says, which is also funny in a way that's confounding because it makes one wonder whether she has an ulterior motive in trying to seduce him like he thinks or has a thing for men who could pass neither the Turing nor Voight-Kampff tests. There's a sequence here, too, where it goes from a snow heavy enough to convince Dixy to stay with someone she's now pretty sure is a serial killer to a moody thunderstorm to a clear and still night where Virtuoso voiceovers how "Your first concern on a night assault is dogs" and how on "a night like this, only the most cruel of owners leaves their dogs out." Except it's dry and clear out (his breath doesn't even show), so I don't really have any goddamned idea what's happening. Is this like that John Cusack Identity movie, or Scorsese's Shutter Island? You know, some unreliable-narrator shit. That could be moderately interesting. The other, stronger possibility is that there was a lot of post-production jerry-rigging going on here, including, potentially, the addition of a desperate and ubiquitous voiceover that has resulted in absolute chaos. If that happened, that's actually super interesting. The last time I saw a movie this impenetrably scattershot was Tomas Alfredson's The Snowman.
With about 30 minutes to go, I realized that Anson Mount's performance felt familiar for its resemblance to Diedrich Bader's work as the immanently kind and moral Judah Mannowdog, Princess Carolyn's possibly-austistic assistant on "Bojack Horseman." Judah, like the Virtuoso, is professional, smart, detail-oriented, and also flat in his speech and outward emotional expressions. When surprising and unexpected things happen, his voiceover says, "This is interesting" in a way that indicates he indeed finds it to be interesting and nothing else. It's that old "Saturday Night Live" sketch about Joe Montana thinking about masturbating. This confounding mixture of nuts and earnest made me like The Virtuoso more than I was already ironically liking it. It's like watching a squirrel try to play a piano and simultaneously grapple with the existential crisis of being trapped in a meaningless cycle of de-squirrelizing behaviours. There's a cop, too, one Deputy Myers (David Morse), who's vaguely menacing possibly because he's the bad guy or just as possibly because he's played by David Morse. Casting him in that role, in this film, you had to have known that...look, it doesn't matter. All this and we haven't begun to touch on the monologue the Mentor delivers in a cemetery about a war crime he committed in the bush with Virtuoso's dad. Here, the Mentor repeatedly refers to the slaughter of unarmed villagers as "pluggin'" 'em--how his evil superiors kept telling them to "plug" their victims like Jimmy Cagney gone upriver in the 'Nam. The horrah, the horrah. Anyway, it goes on for a long time, and I can't say I thought it was good, but I respected how committed it was to being terrible.
Another detail worth mentioning: In the back of the diner where Dixy works, there are stacks of paper cups on a metro shelving unit labelled "Cups." They're not in plastic sheaves, they're not in their cartons; they're all removed and stacked there for some unknowable, inscrutable reason, and I think we're meant to not notice the "cups" label is missing the first part, which Dixy has fashioned into her nametag. It's not spelled right, this label that was meant to denote for whomever works at this diner that this is where the "Dixie Cups" are supposed to go (and nothing else is labelled, so what the fuck is happening here that Dixie Cups get the special treatment?!), and maybe that's a red herring, or maybe the filmmakers didn't know how to spell it and didn't bother to Google, or maybe they couldn't get the rights to use the name, or Dixie Cup for whatever reason didn't want to give them money to advertise their cups. Shit, I don't know. I do know that Dixy says her name is "Dixie, like the cup," and my thought was that this movie can't really be doing this, can it? The Virtuoso is simultaneously playing fair and not playing fair at all. Its best and greatest smokescreen is that it is obviously inept. The Virtuoso says at one point, "Even amateurs can be dangerous." If that's true of assassins, I'll have to take his word for it. It's certainly true of poker players, because in not knowing how to play, they make the game completely unpredictable, entirely unmanageable bedlam. And that slip of paper The Virtuoso burns in the fireplace? Let me just say that Eddie Marsan is in this movie long enough for a drink of whiskey and that's his entire function. You figure it out.