When a character in a film looks at himself in a mirror, it is a moment where the defenses are down, and both the character and the audience can see who he truly is. As The Hit opens, we see Terence Stamp straightening his tie, smiling perhaps more than one would expect of a man who is about to give testimony that will both put his former employers in prison and guarantee his eventual death. What is he thinking? Or is he thinking at all? Perhaps he is only considering the sweet deal he brokered that would give him freedom and anonymity in Spain. In court, he is flippant, gives testimony happily, without a seeming care in the world. When he steps out of the dock, the criminals he is testifying against leap up to unleash a torrent of abuse, and we can only guess what threats pour out of them, because director Stephen Frears makes the oddly effective choice of overdubbing a raucous chorus of “We’ll meet again, don’t know where… don’t know wheeeeeeeen” which is far more sinister than any overt threat could be. At that moment, his face gives away his inner thoughts better than any mirror: he is seized by fear. As Willie Parker, Stamp gives an unforgettably off-balance performance in a film that starts as a genre flick, then becomes something else entirely.
Ten years later, Stamp is in rural Spain, and the world is about to come down upon his head. Thugs break into his simple but comfortable house, and though he puts up a spirited defense, he knows his time in the sun has ended. His captors are a maniacal cockney git named Myron (Tim Roth) and a taciturn man named Braddock (John Hurt, who plays reptilian as well as anyone in the business). You have to love a film where a hitman is named Myron. Anyway, he has a bit of road to figure out how much time he has, as they spirit him away for an unknown destination where he will most certainly die for his sins. Along the way there are complications, a policeman who was protecting Willie is murdered, a hostage is taken, and there are loose ends that require tying, but all is driven not by plot, but by how a given character is likely to deal with a situation. Myron is an idiot who never really grew out of school, what with razor blades hilariously stashed in his jacket. Braddock is quiet and stern, but is far from ruthless, and hesitates at critical moments.
In the center of the storm is Willie Parker, and Stamp jumps into the role of a dead man with aplomb. Contrary to the pants-shitting that one would expect, he is smiling, and even helps his captors along whenever possible. Perhaps he is whistling in the dark, or has lost all fear since he has nothing left to lose. The truth turns out to be somewhere in between, and his mood changes with time. How he views his death is the emotional centerpiece of the film, and it is a moving target.
Willie is well read, and is constantly with a book in his hand. He has a passion for history, and in one scene discusses an area where invaders of Spain from various eras set up their homes. “The route of the invaders… they came through these mountains, Romans, Gauls, Napoleon… the pass of Roncesvalles – they fought the Saracens here. Roland and Oliver – knights of old, great warriors, great chiefs. They fought together, and they died together.” For the past ten years he has read voraciously, and has come to understand his place in history, and his place in the world, eventually accepting this insignificance. Myron and Braddock are unnerved to no end with this unlikely prisoner, and every word he passes to them seems to set them at each other’s throats. Like one who perceives grand expanses of time, he views death as a stage upon the journey – or is this all a game, and he is playing the pieces against each other? Well perhaps. Being ready for death is a state of mind, and that state can change easily from one moment to the next.
Willie: “Apparently what happens to you after death isn’t that different from what happens to you before death. Physically speaking. All part of the same process. So if it’s all the same, really what’s there to worry about? Don’t worry about me, Myron. Worry about you. Are you really up to this?”
Myron: “I’m up to it.”
Willie: “Then worry about your boss. Is this job getting him down? Is he making the right decisions? Are you going to have to take over at some time or another? Think about it… we don’t want anything going wrong.”
He has the look of a man who has seen the other side, and finds this world irrevocably fucked and worthy only of a bit of fun in the chaos. Given ample time to escape, he only walks a short distance to stand in the mist of a waterfall. When asked why he did not try to escape, he answers as if such questions are a waste of his time. Even if his time is running out, there is little reason to waste a moment when one could regard the beauty of nature, the finality of a journey, a moment from a history book. As Willie philosophically intones, this is all in a moment. He has a dark sense of humor about his situation, which is the only kind that works, really.
For example, in one scene, which is a masterpiece, the henchmen must hide out in Madrid for a while since being on the road after killing a cop is a good way to get aced, and so they hunker down in a safehouse. Only some punter who knows Braddock’s boss is there already, feet up on the furniture, taking in a game of footy. Braddock enters, gun out, due to the unexpected visitor. Now this visitor is already on edge, as he recognizes Willie, and knows his ass is on borrowed time, but doesn’t know if they know that, and so he keeps smiling, and talking, and letting them know that it is okay he is there, just borrowing the space for a bit from their mutual employer, and can get going no problem, and just keeps talking, and talking, and how the actor manages the very edge of anxiety is a marvel to watch. And so he seems to convince them that all is well, and he should get going. Then Willie pipes up, “My name’s Willie Parker. You’ve probably read about me in the paper.” and seals the man’s fate. Not only is the scene perfect, as John Hurt sits quietly to contemplate what to do with this state of affairs, it is incredibly fucking funny.
Despite his affable appearance, the truly ruthless soul is Willie Parker, who is willing to throw any bystanders under the bus, either to help himself or just to fuck with people. Or maybe he has no plan. Just take heed of what he says to Braddock after they leave with the aforementioned punter’s girlfriend. Over time, it never becomes clear whether Willie’s calm exterior is truly a sign of ennui, or if it conceals a canny mind just waiting for the hitmen to kill each other – do not make the mistake of thinking the answer is an obvious one. And while the men travel on an indistinct quest, the audience is invited to consider just how they would behave in Willie’s place. Would one accept their demise as an inevitability and contemplate the infinity, or would plots hatch continuously to evade one’s downfall for at least a little while? When the moment finally comes, would the survival instinct kick in, invited or otherwise? No one can address this until their moment truly comes. And then you have only that moment to answer.