There is an age old theory that age-old premise that if you stick a former Oscar winner in a small supporting role and give him the largest headshot on the poster, then the final product will rise above the level of a simple generic genre exercise. In the case of the new crime thriller The Virtuoso, the formula works well enough. Though Anthony Hopkins has a fairly small amount of screen time that could easily have been crammed into a day or two of shooting, his turn as a manager/mentor does add a bit of extra gravitas to an eerily atmospheric but otherwise pretty formulaic hitman-for-hire story. More a thriller in the sense of tone than actual palpable suspense, the film doesn’t do much to re-invent the genre and is a bit too predictable to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. Even so, the film does an excellent job of creating interesting characters and fog-drenched ambiance to keep the viewer invested in playing along.
Anson Mount stars as the titular hit man, known only as The Virtuoso. He earns this title – or at least bestows it upon himself – based on the premise that he is a master of his craft, an expert in timing and patience who is capable of pulling off any job with an almost mechanical level of precision. He lives alone in the woods, abiding by a rigid set of rules that help him conduct his business and protect his identity. In general, they’re all pretty good rules to live by, whether or not you happen to be a hitman: stay off the grid, keep your tools in good working order, and avoid the U.S. Postal Service. In the absence any friends, family, or proteges to share this wisdom, he spends his days preforming chores and working out at his unibomber-style cabin, where he espouses his theories of elevated hitmanning in long, drawn out voiceovers while he waits for the next job offer from his boss, aptly named The Mentor (Anthony Hopkins).
However, even for a virtuoso, things do not always go as planned. On a routine assignment to take out a CEO who narrowly escaped indictment, The Virtuoso’s plans are upset when his plans to make the hit look like a simple traffic accident result in “collateral damage.” As the victim’s car veers off the road, a young mother is caught in the fiery wreck, burning to death in front of her nearby child. Haunted by the image of this tragic scene, The Virtuoso nevertheless decides to continue with his next job. Armed only with a single cryptic clue – White Rivers – he heads out to a remote town, seemingly comprised of a single diner and the half dozen shady figures who frequent it, any of whom could be his target.
As he works to gather more information on the mysterious White Rivers, his mistakes continue compound, and his professional focus slowly begins to unravel. After the initial collateral that sends him into his spiral of self-dobut, he arrives in town late, becomes emotionally involved with The Waitress (Abbie Cornish), and accidentally kills a man he plans to interrogate when an unknown heart condition causes him to miscalculate a delicate drug cocktail. However, even as he makes virtually every mistake in the book, his analytical voiceover continues, and it becomes a bit hard to take his claims of virtuosity seriously when almost all you see him do in the film is botching job after job after job.
Verdict: 3 out of 5 Stars
While it is occasionally predictable and it’s pulpy film noir voiceover gets a bit undercut by the almost complete lack of clean, precise action sequences, there’s enough that works in The Virtuoso that makes it entertaining enough for a single watch. The performances are subtle, yet strong enough to amount to an intriguing character study, while the pacing and cinematography come together to build an exquisite sense of atmosphere. Even if the plot twists and hitman-lessons-as-life-metaphors may not be quite as clever as they’d like you to believe, the story of a small town besieged by a criminal trapped in a downward spiral of personal and professional chaos will be satisfying for die-hard thriller junkies.