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Cosmic Psychologist: ‘Hit Man’ and the Tangled Web of Lying

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We’ve all done something foolish in the pursuit of love, haven’t we? As a psychologist, I understand that we’re not alone in this. The need and desire to fit in and be accepted is a powerful force in all of us. The universal need for that intoxicating dopamine hit from another person drives us to seek love and support from those around us. If our sense of self is strong, that need for validation and love from another doesn’t fundamentally change us. It’s all too easy to lose ourselves in our romantic relationships. This conflict between our sense of identity and the love we seek is at the heart of Netflix’s newest film, Hit Man, a narrative that, I believe, will resonate with many.

Hit Man is a captivating story inspired by the real-life experiences of Gary Johnson, a man who was one of the most sought-after professional hitmen in Texas but was actually an undercover operative working with the police. Johnson’s story, first brought to light in an article by Skip Hollandsworth, has now been transformed into a film directed, produced, and co-written by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock), along with Glen Powell, who helped author the story and stars in the film.

While many will be drawn to this romantic black comedy for its entertainment value, the psychological journey of the main character, Gary, is what truly makes Hit Man a compelling watch, particularly for those with an interest in the social science. 

[Warning: Spoilers from Netflix’s Hit Man are below!]

Gary Johnson isn’t your average professor in Hit Man

As a professor of Psychology and Philosophy at the University of New Orleans, Gary Johnson is a valuable asset to the police. His expertise aids in the capture of individuals seeking a hit man to end someone’s life. Initially, his role was behind the scenes, constructing profiles and identities for the agents in the field. However, there comes a pivotal moment when he’s thrust into the forefront. This transition from the control van to a cover fundamentally alters Gary, setting in motion a series of events that will challenge his understanding of himself and his role in the world.

Hit Man
Gary (Glen Powell). Hit Man (Netflix).

Gary isn’t just good at becoming someone else; he’s fantastic at it, but what else would you expect from a professor of psychology? His unique understanding of humans helps him to descend deeply into these roles, making him one of the best, but it also pushes him to the brink of disaster after meeting Madison (Adria Arjona), a woman who wants out of her unhappy marriage. She approaches Gary to kill her husband, but the undercover agent takes pity on her, stopping her from entrapping herself and going to jail.

But what happens when he falls in love with Madison? She believes him to be Ron, a sexy but sympathetic professional killer, not a nerdy professor who has never killed a person in his life. This dissonance between his true self and the identity he presents to Madison creates a tension that can’t be ignored, but that doesn’t stop him from pursuing the relationship. Instead, he continues to double down in his Ron persona, creating a tangled web that puts him and everyone else involved in danger.

The art of deception for love in Hit Man

What appealed so strongly to me about this film was the mechanics of Gary’s operation as Ron and the problematic dynamics he creates by continuing a lie. It was fascinating to watch someone actively build a relationship off the basis of such a gigantic lie, but also be able to disconnect from it. Gary found someone in the world for whom he was willing to lose everything, which pushed him to lie to those in his life and career. He couldn’t stop perpetuating the lie that he was Ron, which resulted in him having to construct new lies to dig himself out of holes he was actively creating for himself.

What began as a slow descent quickly picked up momentum, and Gary’s reality and the life he was living as hit man Ron came crashing together. It was harder to keep both lives going, as it is for anyone who’s pretending to be someone they aren’t. So what about Ron, and his infatuation with Madison pushes Gary in this direction? 

The problem at hand indeed goes from bad to worse when he’s introduced to Madison, but when you take a look at Gary’s trajectory from the start of the film, it stems from something more profound. His life is boring, sorry to say. Sure, he’s a great professor, but other than that, his life seems incredibly bland. He teaches, goes out to lunch with his ex (whom he keeps a cordial relationship with despite her moving on), and then works for the police. The latter allows him to have some excitement, and I think Gary becomes addicted to that.

It’s something new and fresh to be able to slip on a new identity and be someone you’re not. Gary likes being Ron because he is the complete opposite of who he truly is. Where Gary is nerdy, Ron is sexy. Gary’s safe; Ron is dangerous. To be seen by someone such as Madison as manly and rough appeals to Ron, but he isn’t ready to let that go. Instead, he wants to double down and become more like Ron, to keep some form of excitement in his life, even if that comes with high danger levels.

When you factor in the biological love of meeting someone like Madison, it becomes clearer why Gary wishes to continue the lie. The adrenaline and dopamine he received from both a life other than himself and a girl who found that sexy drove him to need to keep that high for as long as possible. This is why he ends up involving himself in a murder cover up because the brain chemicals he’s receiving are too great to give up.

This Netflix film is a psychologist’s playground

Those who are looking for a fun and exciting rom-com will need not look further than Netflix’s Hit Man, but there’s so much more to the film than just that. The characters’ psyches are front and center, with many of them making questionable choices in the search for freedom and excitement in life. While Gary’s is the most prevalent, as the film follows his journey, there are many others for viewers to dissect, all of which provide an active playground for psychology enthusiasts to study as they take in Hit Man in all its glory.

Hit Man is currently streaming on Netflix. Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus what you think of the film! You can also check out James’ review of Hit Man after its premiere at Sundance earlier this year.

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Brian Kitson

Working hard to bring you the latest news and thoughtful analysis of all things nerdy!

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