Why the Hit Man Was Actually 2023’s Person of the Year
In movies, TV, and video games, this was the year pop culture truly became obsessed with the hired killer.
"Do you guys ever think about dying?"
From Barbie and Oppenheimer to several of our finest filmmakers, this was the question on everyone's lips in 2023. While Bill Hader's Barry and Keanu Reeves' John Wick took a final bow, David Fincher, Harmony Korine, and Richard Linklater all premiered new movies concerned with the enduring mythology of the American hit man. IO Interactive announced plans to merge the phenomenally popular Hitman video game trilogy into one Hitman: World of Assassination package, giving players access to a wealth of elaborate missions that send Agent 47 around the world to carry out deadly (sometimes absurd) contracts. We've even had a new Assassin's Creed game take the series back to its stealthy origins. When it comes to pop culture, it feels like everyone's making a killing.
While the subject of killers for hire has proven a wellspring of inspiration for decades (Frank Sinatra played a ruthless assassin in 1954 noir Suddenly), the scale of our cultural fascination seemed to ramp up in 2023, and it's easy to see why. Living through a seemingly endless global economic depression and doom-scrolling our way through countless horrors and absurdities every single day, it stands to reason our attitudes toward the daily grind might take a turn for the fantastical. The very concept of the hit man — someone who has monetized an act beyond most people’s moral boundaries — appeals to our collective fascination with the profane. But this latest crop of films aren't content with the mythological idea of the hired gun as hyper-competent and detached. In the case of Fincher, Linklater, and Korine, their vastly different portrayals of paid murderers are a means to speak on the gig economy and the gap between who we claim to be and who we actually are.
Twenty-one minutes pass in David Fincher's The Killer before a single bullet is fired. First, we're treated to a monologue from Michael Fassbender's anonymous hit man, where he gives his thoughts on everything from the correct way to eat a McGriddle to the methodology of the Green River Killer. He's been on a stakeout for days and he's tired of stagnation. “I've actually grown to appreciate proximity work,” our unnamed assassin says. "Staged accidents, gradual poisonings. Anything with a little creativity. When was my last nice, quiet drowning?"
Anyone who has ever played a Hitman game will take great delight in explaining that the beauty of the stealth assassination series isn't doing things by the book, it's the ways in which you're encouraged to go rogue. Dress up as a mascot at a racetrack to get close to your target? Sure. Impersonate a world-famous male model to infiltrate a fashion show? Go for it. While there's no indication that Fincher or screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker have spent any time trying to pull off a five-star hit as Agent 47, the idea of creative wet work is important to both The Killer and Hitman (though the former is considerably more chatty about how much pride he takes in his work).
When Fassbender eventually takes the shot, he misses his mark — a split-second mistake that he'll spend the rest of the film's runtime trying to correct. Anyone who's ever been chased around a map by hostile NPCs can relate to that feeling of panic, and it becomes particularly ironic — and amusing — to see the professed professional consistently wrongfooted. While the idea of being a hired killer has long fascinated audiences around the world, never has it looked more tedious than in The Killer, as he attempts to course-correct for that pesky stray bullet.
Assassination looks decidedly more gung-ho in Harmony Korine's lurid Aggro Dr1ft. Jordi Mollà plays BO, a gun-toting family man who speaks in repetitive monologues about being a killer and loving his curvy wife. Korine claims to have been heavily inspired by video games, and while the likely suspects seem to be Hotline Miami and Cruelty Squad, he's yet to name anything beyond Grand Theft Auto. Yet Aggr0 Dr1ft, for all its peacocking and provocative ultraviolence, lacks the innovation in style or narrative that made Grand Theft Auto what it is today. BO constantly reminds us who he is — an assassin, a husband, a father — but even shot in infrared, we never see much beyond the surface.
Someone not lacking style is the titular Hit Man of Richard Linklater's latest black comedy, co-written with its star Glen Powell and based on the remarkable career of Gary Johnson, who worked undercover for the Houston Police posing as a hit man for people trying to find one. Hit Man's version of Gary is very keen to remind us that hit men don't actually exist – at least, not the ones who hang out on Craigslist waiting for someone to slip them an envelope full of cash beneath the table at a Waffle House. Nevertheless, when mild-mannered philosophy professor Gary takes on the persona of cold-as-ice, charismatic contract killer Ron, he finds it alarmingly easy to make-believe they do — and soon there's a body count, even without a paycheck at the end of it.
If there's anything to be gleaned from the wealth of hit men cinema has offered in 2023, it's that something about the scenario of a paid murderer continues to fascinate filmmakers. While David Fincher's vengeance-seeking hit man is hopelessly caught up in the mechanics of the gig economy, for Linklater, this mythology exists to be debunked, but in the process, he unpacks what exactly appeals so much about the concept of the hit man: control, charisma, and an unwavering, self-serving moral code. But perhaps an additional reason for the fascination is our global sense of uncertainty and anxiety. In the world we currently live in, even dying has a high price tag. If a private individual isn't benefiting from your misfortune, it's likely some sort of higher power is.