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Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man” Asks, How Far Will You Go For Love?

Richard Linklater and Glen Powell (photo by George Pimentel/Shutterstock for Sundance)

By Bailey Pennick

As he walks onto the Eccles stage to introduce his 10th project that he’s had screen at the Sundance Film Festival (number 11 would come the next day at the world premiere of God Save Texas), Richard Linklater throws up the “rock on” hand gesture. It’s fitting, not only because of the legendary writer-director’s general relaxed vibe, but for the specific vibe of this afternoon viewing. Hit Man, which is featured in the Spotlight section of the 2024 Fest. It’s a wild and twisted ride written by Linklater, along with his leading man Glen Powell, and the director lets the audience know immediately how stoked he is that Powell is with him today.

“Because of the strikes this summer, I had to show this film to festivals with no actors,” says Linklater, in his signature soft-spoken drawl. “It was so strange to do that and I didn’t really like it, so I’m thrilled to bring out an actor with me!” There’s a warm reception for Powell even before the audience sees his comedic (and costume) range in the film-noir-screwball-comedy. “I’ve wanted to come to this Festival my entire life,” Powell says, flashing his megawatt smile. “This is a place for people who really care about movies.” The crowd goes nuts as the lights go down.

Hit Man follows the story of Gary Johnson, a mild-mannered (but surprisingly buff) professor who loves birds and helping the New Orleans police department catch people who are attempting to solicit hit men. Gary’s a bit of a tech nut, so he usually sits in the van and makes sure that the hidden cameras/microphones for sting operations are ready to go, but after the normal undercover man gets taken out of the rotation for being a crooked cop, it’s time for Gary to step into the fake hit man shoes. Turns out he’s a natural!

“I was interested in the fact that this guy studied and emulated humanity instead of being part of it,” Powell explains. Gary tailors all of his hit men personas to be super-believable to the suspect, but he doesn’t know what to do when he falls head over heels for a woman who wants to hire him (as the very cool, can-always-get-it Roy) to murder her husband. This is where Gary’s already slightly complicated life gets twisted, but that’s what Linklater loves about this story. “It’s kind of fun fucking with everybody,” he says with a laugh.

When asked in the post-premiere Q&A about how he writes such funny scenes, Linklater took the opportunity to give some advice to the aspiring filmmakers out there. “Comedy is not stand-up,” he explains. “There’s a 6- to 12-month delay before an audience will see your film and react to what you think is funny, so you have to remember what was so funny to you in the first place while you’re making it. That requires a lot of patience.”

From landing his jokes from years ago to waiting to show Hit Man to an audience with his actors in tow, Linklater proves that patience is something else he’s got in spades. Remember, this is the man who took 13 years to make Boyhood.