Hit Man: The Fun Romantic Comedy with a Dash of Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ

Micah Rickard

“One seldom commits only one rash act. In the first rash act, one always does too much. For just that reason, one usually commits a second—and then one does too little . . .” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols)

Gary Johnson’s life is fairly staid: he’s a professor of philosophy at a small university with a birding hobby, a pair of cats named Id and Ego, and a Honda Civic. He’s terminally uncool. He’s an inner life in want of an outer life. But Gary Johnson is also many people, many people who are distinctly not Gary. A gun-toting smirker. A Patrick Bateman cosplayer. A foppish man of indeterminate European origin. Or a growling Russian who’s had his nose broken a few too many times.

He’s whatever people need him to be, provided they’re looking to kill someone. In the Netflix movie Hit Man, Gary (Glen Powell) moonlights as a faux assassin for the New Orleans Police Department, snaring vengeful spouses, jealous coworkers, and one particularly unapologetic teenager. He’s told to “embody the trait” of his persona—and it turns out he’s pretty good at it. For him, it becomes as much of a philosophical playground as a mission for justice.

Directed by Richard Linklater, Hit Man is about formation and reformation, about constructing moral thresholds and about crossing them. It’s an existential cat-and-mouse tale in a tone that could only be navigated by a director like Linklater. Like Linklater's Bernie before it, the most outlandish thing about this story is that it’s based on real events. Gary knits a myriad of outer lives to try on, various selves within which he can tweak or subsume his own traits. By his count, the people he fools have made their moral choices—he’s just giving them the space to explore their own violent inclinations. But when he meets Madison (Adria Arjona), he senses that her choice is driven more by fear than determined anger, so he advises her to walk away.

It’s a noble act, but Linklater loves to complicate the lives of his protagonists, which is exactly what happens to Gary. The initial meeting sparks a romance, but it also traps Gary as his assassin persona, Ron. Ron is suave. Charismatic. A dog person. Powell (Anyone But You, Top Gun: Maverick) has quickly shown a knowing swagger that feels like Tom Cruise-cum-Matthew McConaughey. Here, he gives both Gary and Ron their due charm. Powell also wrote the script alongside Linklater and they manage to give each aspect of the film its own electricity. This is a smart movie with some real philosophical heft, a comedy laced with social commentary, a homegrown Southern noir, and a sexy romance between two deeply flawed people. There’s even a meta layer of commentary on acting, as Gary searches for connections to his fictional egos. On just about every level, Hit Man is a blast—but it’s also willing to go to some dark places.

The road Gary takes results in a divisive ending, one that seems at odds with the light tone. But with Gary lost at the corner of Law and Desire (a real New Orleans intersection, which Linklater uses as a wry visual pun), the film is honest with his character: Gary proves remarkably adept at crafting personas, but the projection of a self can also construct a villain. Even more than the other selves that are invented, Ron threatens to warp Gary’s true self. Early on, Hit Man questions our relationship to the myth of the assassin, as Gary comments on our vicarious bloodlust over a montage of hired-killer scenes from popular movies and television. But that inquisitive nature must also extend to Gary’s creations. If he’s seduced by his own facade, as fake as it is, is he much better than audiences who naively believe that hit men like Ron truly exist?

The film opens with Gary lecturing his class on Nietzsche’s emphatic exhortations on the self and action. With how thoughtful the script is elsewhere—and how philosophical Linklater has proven himself to be in films like Waking Life, Boyhood, and the Before series—this should be understood as intentional. Gary is seduced by Ron just as much as Madison is, which transforms his understanding of self. He’s a charismatic hero, but he’s not a morally righteous one—he never was.

Hit Man is about formation and reformation, about constructing moral thresholds and about crossing them.

In his temperamental work The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche questions the structure of our assumed morals: “What is good? —All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad? —All that proceeds from weakness.” Gary couches his exhortations to his students in milder terms of action and self expression; Nietzsche’s project was more grandiose. He was out to reveal the emptiness of ethical norms. For Nietzsche, “there are no moral facts whatever” (Twilight of the Idols). As Gary psychologically spirals into Ron, he sloughs off Gary’s perceived weakness and embraces this inversion of morals. Perhaps most disturbingly, he retains all of his original charisma, even as he crosses boundaries that cause us to recoil. Swagger and goodness are not equivalent.

As the former title suggests, Nietzsche held Christianity especially responsible for what he saw as vile. “Christianity has taken the side of everything weak, base, ill-constituted. . . No one any longer possesses today the courage to claim special privileges or the right to rule. . . The aristocratic outlook has been undermined most deeply by the lie of the equality of souls” (The Anti-Christ). If his outlook is abhorrent, it’s not an inaccurate description of the Christian faith. Nietzsche takes precise umbrage with the attitude of Christ, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8).

Nietzsche sought special privileges over humanity and its morals; Jesus willingly surrendered his superiority to redeem and restore humans. This is the unfathomable gap between Nietzsche’s heroic idea and Christ’s sacrificial love. Given his concern for Madison, Gary initially acts with self-emptying compassion, but his later choices devolve into a mere will to power.

Linklater keeps a light touch, even as Hit Man becomes bleaker and more troubling. But he’s always maintained a knotty relationship with his characters, one that prevents the cheery tone from becoming an endorsement. McConaughey’s Wooderson is the most quotable character in Dazed and Confused, though he demonstrates predatory inclinations. The talky romance of Ethan Hawke’s Jesse in the Before trilogy has always been mingled with self-absorption. And Linklater’s other true-crime patchwork, Bernie, molds a lovable protagonist out of a murderer.

Hit Man has little interest in making Gary an exemplar. His heroism is relegated to a Nietzschean sense of moral irrelevance. His rash actions entangle him into this admixture of identities, but he can’t be accused of doing too little. He continues to do too much. Yes, he’s fun to watch, but Linklater is savvy enough to muddy the relationship between the audience and his protagonist. If we find his actions disturbing—good! Gary can serve as a negative example, one that leaves us wanting something better from our heroes and point us back to the compassion of Christ.


At Think Christian, we encourage careful cultural discernment. We recognize and respect that many Christians choose not to engage with pop culture that contains particular content, such as abuse, sex, violence, alcohol or drug use, or that employs the use of coarse language. To that end, we suggest visiting Common Sense Media for detailed information regarding the content of the particular piece of pop culture discussed in this article.

Topics: Movies