“The Virtuoso” – Not exactly Joshua Bell [MOVIE REVIEW]

Anson Mount as The Virtuoso in "The Virtuoso." Photo Credit: Jessica Kourkounis

Anson Mount as The Virtuoso in “The Virtuoso.” Photo Credit: Jessica Kourkounis

“The Virtuoso,” written by James C. Wolf and directed by Nick Stagliano, tries to emulate film noire of the past, or at least that’s what Stagliano would like to believe. Certainly there are some of the elements but The Virtuoso is not a flawed hero, he’s a paid assassin. And therein lies part of the problem.

The Virtuoso is a skilled hitman whose assignments from The Mentor are delivered via an external non-USPS mail box. The Virtuoso prides himself on his planning and meticulous execution (pun intended). All goes awry, however, when he is given an emergency, but highly lucrative, assignment for which he has been unable to scrupulously plan. He analyzes the set up and, like many a previous job, not everything goes as expected. Had he had the time, he would never have chosen this location; he would have known the target’s habits; he would have chosen an isolated spot. This time, however, even though he succeeds in shooting his target, there is collateral damage that he can’t live with.

There is, as The Virtuoso points out, often collateral damage. Wrong place, wrong time. But this particular event has scarred him and The Mentor knows it.

The Virtuoso, after a suitable rest, is given a new assignment, but it is oblique. A town, a café, and two words: “White River.” He will have to unravel the puzzle himself.

The plot is a pretty good one. The problem is in the execution (again with that pesky pun). Stagliano claims to have been influenced by Frank Capra, not exactly known for telling dark stories. He quotes Capra, “forget techniques,  forget zoom lenses and subliminal cutting; remember only that you are telling your story NOT with gimmicks, but with actors…” Would that he had followed that advice.

Instead he has attempted to draw a portrait of an existential character whose shallow existence has no goals other than his detachment from life. He lives in the woods, has no friends, and seemingly no emotions. Had Stagliano watched Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samouraï” from 1967 starring Alain Delon in what is arguably his best role, he might have had a better handle on how to reveal an existential personality. One of the main differences between these films is that Melville’s film is almost entirely without dialogue. The reveal is in the impassivity of Delon’s  character and his dead eyes. It is an existent desperation that is finally revealed as he becomes lost in a struggle to escape being caught.

Stagliano has chosen voice-over narration by The Virtuoso who explains his movements and assignments as he prepares for his kills. First person narration disguised as second person point of view is difficult to carry out, at best, but in this case the effect is both pretentious and portentous. It is probable that the fault lies with the director in that he inserted himself as a co-writer with Wolf.

Anthony Hopkins as The Mentor in “The Virtuoso.” Photo Credit: Lance Skundrich

The cast is pretty good. Anson Mount as The Virtuoso is quite credible and elicits a certain amount of sympathy from the audience. It is unlikely that anyone would have been able to pull off the second person explanatory recitations he was tasked with performing.

Abbie Cornish as The Waitress, the wild card in all this, does a fairly admirable job in her role. But try as the filmmakers and Abbie might, she is no femme fatale.

There is a flurry of late-in-the-game appearances by name actors such as Eddie Marsan and David Morse that give you a clue that something is up, but their screen time does not allow for anything other than cameos.

And finally there is Anthony Hopkins as The Mentor. One can only ask why. There wasn’t enough there to answer that question. It’s Anthony Hopkins; it could have been anyone.

If this seems a bit on the negative side, it’s more complicated than that. Despite all the above, the film wasn’t a waste of my time. I rather enjoyed it. The plot was good but the execution (again that word that keeps coming back like a clay pigeon) just wasn’t there. Had Stagliano followed the wise words of Capra, he would have told a straightforward story with some character development. He didn’t.

Now playing in select theaters and on VOD. It arrives on Blu-ray and DVD on May 4.

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