Let’s Talk About John Wick’s Silences

John Wick is the paragon of the stoic assassin.

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Early on in the 2014 action extravaganza John Wick, before the bullets have flown and blood has been spilt, Russian mobster Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist) calls the titular hitman (Keanu Reeves). He’s just received news that his son, Iosef (Alfie Allen) has not only stolen Wick’s car, but also shot his dog, both actions that will be met with a fatal retaliation. He understands this, and yet the call is an attempt to stave off the inevitable. First, Tarasov condoles Wick on the death of his wife. Rattled by the silence on the other end of the line, he calls out the assassin’s name, only to be met with even more quiet. Tarasov gets as far as, “Let us not resort to our baser instincts, and handle this like civilized men…” before realizing he’s been hung up on.

The John Wick movies are rooted in certain undeniable truths: John Wick loves his dog, he once killed three men in a bar with a pencil, and he speaks very, very little. Wick isn’t afforded the big dramatic speeches, the witty punchlines, the scathing retorts. He doesn’t banter or make veiled threats. On multiple occasions, he responds to an elaborate line of dialogue with a simple, “Yeah.”

John Wick is a man of few words — which is part of the magic of the movies.


The trope of the weary assassin, more effective with his violence than his words, isn’t new — The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy comes to mind — but it feels like an anomaly in the current cultural landscape where quips are memed into infinity and movie quotes become social media currency. Just last year, Bullet Train brought with it a whole troupe of wisecracking assassins.

Wick, however, finds himself speechless several times over in the fourth installment of his franchise. When the daughter of a fellow assassin — one who died attempting to protect him — exhorts him to seek revenge on her father’s killer, claiming she will if he fails, all the guilt-stricken hitman can offer is a weak, “I understand.” When she grits out a goodbye at their parting, he can’t bring himself to respond. Earlier in the film, Wick finds out that he’s being followed by an assassin who’s waiting for the bounty on his head to rise just enough before he can kill him and claim it. The stranger, who identifies himself as Nobody, asks Wick to take care of himself, lest he be killed by someone else eager for the reward. Once again, he’s at a loss for words. During an extended fight sequence, the visually impaired assassin Caine (Donnie Yen) calls out to Wick, attempting to locate him. The camera pushes in on the wounded hitman’s face, heaving with exertion. In another film, this would be the point at which the character would respond with a snarky rebuttal but Chapter 4 stays true to the honesty of the moment. Wick stays silent so as not to give away his position.

John Wick is surrounded by much more talkative characters, allowing him to live in the silences.


Where other characters relish their dialogues — consider how Laurence Fishburne (as the Bowery King) makes a meal of his lines, drawing them out, savoring every last word — Wick lives in the monosyllables and silences. In John Wick: Chapter 2, as the assassin Ares (Ruby Rose) succumbs to wounds inflicted by Wick, she still signals that she’ll be seeing him soon, in what is now a running joke between them. He doesn’t play along, simply responding, “Sure.” By the end of the franchise’s third film, Wick’s caught off guard, shot multiple times by a man he considered a father figure (Ian McShane) and fallen off the Continental rooftop, presumed dead. When he’s revived at an underground tunnel, the Bowery King delivers a speech full of righteous rage and vengeful provocations, inciting Wick’s own anger and asking him if he’s “pissed off.” The assassin trembles on the floor, raises his head, takes a beat, and grunts, “Yeaaaah.” Cut to the end credits. On this single word rests the promise and the potential of the fourth film’s carnage and chaos.

Maybe his verbal abilities have taken a hit thanks to the several concussions he’s suffered over the course of the franchise. Maybe it’s just that silence is an effective weapon in the myth-building arsenal of a man referred to as the Baba Yaga, tantalizingly creating gaps in a story that can be filled in with whatever fearsome exploit he pulls off next. Wick’s unwillingness to speak more also makes sense considering that his earliest instance of mouthiness in the films — a “Not this, bitch” retort to Iosef — is what dooms him, dragging him right back to the life he’d fought so hard to escape in the first place.

John Wick continues a long tradition of stoic assassins.


Maybe it’s also fair to say that the death of his wife has turned Wick into a ghost, a shell of his former self more alive in his memories of his time with her than he is in the real world. Flip through the script of the first film and you’ll find that his character descriptors include “stoic,” “tired,” and “beat down.” His silences convey a weariness at being trapped inside a world he swore he’d never return to. While there are moments of levity to the John Wick films, they aren’t lighthearted. The full weight of Wick’s failures hang heavy on him, revealing the achingly human side to an assassin considered more myth than man. These maximalist spectacles do well with minimal dialogue — the assassin Caine’s (Donnie Yen) terse, well-placed F-bomb at the end of Chapter 4 draws more laughs than any snarky comeback could.

For someone who lets his fists do the talking, however, Wick’s limited speech doesn’t mean he’s all action, no emotion — despite having sharpened and honed himself into a razor-sharp killing machine. In his world, affection isn’t expressed through dialogue, but through doing. The many friends who risk their lives attempting to keep him safe over the course of the series point to the character of a man who they’d trust to do the same for them.

While it’s sometimes hard not to wish that the movies had capitalized on Reeves’ charm, granting him the odd suave one-liner or even big heartfelt speech, the silence of his last scene is perfectly fitting: a moment of peace for an assassin perpetually at war with the world and with himself. The final image of Wick is that of a man on the brink of death, watching the sun break over the first day of his new life. He’s earned his quiet.

John Wick: Chapter 4 is now playing in theaters.

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