The Virtuoso, an edgy, slow-burn thriller directed by Nick Stagliano, hosts an impressive cast of pedigreed actors recognizable from a breadth of film and television appearances. We’re treated to Sir Anthony Hopkins, who, now acting in his 80s, has remarked that he’s having a lot of fun nowadays, choosing from a bin-load of scripts that come his way, most recently and memorably as the main character in “The Father,” where he provides a tour de force, award-winning performance. Here, in The Virtuoso, Sir Anthony plays a nameless professional mentor and handler of sicarios. It’s not clear how he came upon this line of work, but a story he relates to his disciple Anson Mount (“Non-Stop”) reveals his participation in atrocities in a Vietnam War-like conflict.
Mount, one of Hopkins’ go-to assassins, is a low key, dispassionate professional: The virtuoso. He is cold and calculating as is required to succeed at such a job. However, tension arises when he is given an assignment that will take him to a sleepy diner hidden along a swath of rural highway that bears a resemblance to those isolated New England places where nothing much happens and the mood appears chronically soporific. But there’s a catch, maybe two. Mount messed up a previous assignment and thus may be in danger of losing his edge. He begins to wonder whether he will be the cat or the mouse in the upcoming engagement that will pit hunter against hunted. He makes the lonely trek to fulfill his assignment, not clear whom he is to kill or why. He only knows his instructions are to sit alone in a booth at the local eatery (eyes facing the front door, of course), and wait for a sign . . .
The Virtuoso has a neo-noir feel to it. There is suspense, a slow-moving plot, and some alienated-looking characters that seem to have been dropped from the sky or maybe created by spontaneous combustion. If you’ve read Hemingway’s iconic short story The Killers or have seen the film based on the story, you’ll be familiar with the atmosphere. Edward Hopper’s depiction of American alienation in his painting Nighthawks is another cultural reference that comes to mind. Unfortunately, in The Virtuoso, the lonely denizens appear with too much shadow and not enough substance, albeit it’s hard to devise an ideal amalgam. The result is that you often get that “so what” feeling while waiting for the purported and predicted showdown.
David Morse (“Concussion”) plays the local sheriff in his typically enigmatic style — superficially friendly but with an undercurrent of menace. Eddie Marsden, the British character actor who has performed on both sides of the Atlantic (recently as a boxing manager and brother of Liev Schreiber in “Ray Donovan”), is another dubious character who adds atmosphere and apprehension. To counterpoint these unapproachable types is Abbie Cornish (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), the lone and lonely waitress making the rounds from table to table — carrying her isolation along with her tray. She is a relatively bright light in the gloomy setting, although Mount is reserved when she makes advances towards him because he needs to suspect everyone — including those least likely to be a threat (or could that be most likely)? Besides, you don’t want to get too romantic with the potential mark. Nor do you want to develop amorous feelings if you are the mark.
James Wolf, the co-screenwriter (along with Stagliano), attempts to inject an original element into the neo-noir structure. Although noirish set-ups often exploit the use of the voiceover — usually in the guise of the protagonist providing his reflections and perceptions of the story development — in The Virtuoso, this device is offered in second person singular, however. So, instead of “I watch the gimp play with the cat’s eye marble,” for example, we have, “You watch the gimp play with the cat’s eye marble.” This seems to be an added value effort to make the film memorable, but it comes across as too gimmicky, and operates at odds with the conventional set-up instead of serving as an organic component.
A menacing locale, a dark mood, and complex characters are ample ingredients for a neo-noir excursion. But a well-executed outing in the genre requires the subtle art of putting all the pieces together in interesting and plausible ways, not adding one on top of the other. The plot needs to reveal just enough but not too much. It’s a difficult balancing act. The Virtuoso almost gets it right, and the film does a lot on a low budget, but it remains minor league fare.