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Evil is Banal in Confessions of a Hitman

Photo: courtesy Film Movement.

Between 1978 and 2003, a reportedly mild-mannered, slightly dull, prone to stuttering, physically unimposing, and generally unremarkable Quebecer plied his trade in secrecy and anonymity. His was the work of the contract hitman, and Gérald Gallant, working for his bosses in the regional drug and crime operations, rose through the ranks from petty crimes to mob hits. Eventually, he confessed to 28 murders and 12 attempted murders. His are the Confessions of a Hitman, chronicled in a 2015 book and now the subject of a new Canadian crime drama directed by and starring Luc Picard.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Gallant’s criminality is its banality. When he was not executing a hit—typically with a rival organization’s members as his target, a simple shotgun blast to the head or chest—his life was nothing if not humdrum. He lived in a modest suburban tract house in quiet neighborhood with his deeply religious wife, where his neighbors barely knew him. Yet somehow, Gallant used those limitations—his nondescript appearance, his small stature, even his slight stutter—to his advantage, somehow managing to outsmart rival crime gangs and the law at the same time. Even when arrested on a heist gone wrong, Gallant turned his imprisonment into opportunity, making connections with the crime bosses who would later employ him on the outside.

In flashback sequences, Confessions of a Hitman traces Gallant’s deviance to his childhood, where his stutter, his rheumatism, a heart condition, and generally delayed development (an IQ tested in the 80s) led to his bullying by other classmates and dropping out of school in fifth grade. Worse, his domineering mother verbally abuses him in front of his siblings, haranguing him constantly as his meek father watches passively, only occasionally able to muster a word in the child’s defense. As young Gérald suffers each stinging word and slap, he watches while his mother seeks lovers outside her marriage. Those indignities—though the adult Gallant does not speak of them—suggest a deep-seated psychological basis for his later turn to crime.

As Gérald Gallant, director and Genie Award-winning actor Luc Picard plays the hitman with a focused intensity. He is competent at his job, which he performs with the sundry routine of, say, a pharmacist or accountant: there is no passion, no emotion, no remorse in his killings. Just the dry, dull, leaden firing of a weapon into an unsuspecting man’s skull. That same approach characterizes his relationship with his wife Pauline (Éveline Gélinas) and even the lover he takes (Sandrine Bisson): Gallant is technical, dispassionate, unassuming, and methodical in his life and his affairs.

A stylized image of a man holding a gun by its handle.
Image courtesy: Film Movement.

Though certainly taller than Gallant (who was reportedly 5’8-1/2″), Picard seems reasonably well suited to playing a man who can conduct a professional hit and a love affair with relatively equal degrees of passion—that is, to say, little to none. And the film, largely, takes a by-the-book approach to the facts of Gallant’s life of crime. Yet the banal nature of his crimes makes for a film that can seem, like its protagonist, curiously underwhelming.

Confessions of a Hitman is a film that proceeds largely without purpose. Its protagonist has no clear goal: he’s simply narrating the facts of his career. He does not seek, nor does he want. He does not kill for any discernible purpose or calling, other than that these are the assignments dictated by his bosses, and he is competent to perform them. If anything, the film is most shocking for that very fact: that dozens of murders can be committed for so little reason or gain. So it was in Quebec in the ’70s and ’80s and so it is in organized crime across the world.

Viewers might wonder whether Picard was right to star and direct. At transitional moments in the film, he and cinematographer Francois Dutil employ some artful compositions to match Daniel Bélanger’s snappy music, and the film takes on a Seijun Suzuki-like feel. Yet during the narrative scenes themselves, the shots, setups, performances, and edits are all performed with a technical competence that, like the film’s subject, betrays no emotion, no passion, and little discernible narrative purpose: each scene unfolds, but without leading to consequence or revelation.

A nighttime image of a motel with a neon sign at night.
Image courtesy: Film Movement.

With the film’s modest budget and pedestrian approach, Picard and crew will certainly not be accused of fetishizing or sensationalizing violence. But the film seems to lack passion as a consequence. Its point—that the killings confessed to by a technically competent, generally underwhelming, and otherwise uninteresting man are the most banal sort of evil, indeed—is not without merit, but cinema does not rely on theme alone to engage an audience. It’s possible another director, even if not prone to Suzuki-like stylization, might have found another way to convey that theme with a more expressive style, or that directing another actor in the lead role, Picard himself may have been able to devote more attention to finding a more engaging aesthetic or narrative structure.

Or, perhaps it is the case that in these Confessions of a Hitman, only the killings themselves are of interest, yet to the killer, they mean little, other than the assignment and the payday.

Confessions of a Hitman, which captured Best Director at the Whistler Film Festival and a trio of Canadian Screen Award nominations, will begin streaming on Friday, December 2, 2002, on Film Movement’s streaming subscription service, Film Movement Plus, along with iTunes, Amazon, Vudu and leading cable providers.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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