“Who are you?”

It’s a question — perhaps the question — long pondered by philosophers and forensic procedurals since the dawn of time.

Ironically, we are all a bit too close to the subject to ever get a straight answer. In the same way science has charted more of outer space than the ocean, we remain far more comfortable gazing outward than in. The cosmos is forever trying to kill us but at least we see it coming. Beneath the still waters of the human psyche, there are monsters not worth discovering.

Those monsters are the subject of Richard Linklater’s recent film “Hit Man,” released first in some theaters and then on Netflix June 7. The movie follows Gary Johnson (not that one), a mild-mannered psychology professor played by Glen Powell, rocking a Jeffery Dahmer haircut and glasses that’s mitigated slightly by a pair of cutoff jorts. 

Now Gary is an adjunct professor, so he must supplement his income by moonlighting as tech support for the New Orleans Police Department, usually in sting operations involving hit men. As Gary explains in voiceover, real life hit men are an occupation found only in the movies, like a ghostbuster or a financially solvent film critic. 

When people believe the movies and try to hire an assassin to solve their problem, the assassin they contact is invariably an undercover cop. For an arrest to happen, the procurer must verbally assent to the murder and hand over the money, so the officer at hand must be a smooth operator and a patient fisherman.  

Gary is happy sitting at a safe distance in the surveillance van, until the field comes to him when the undercover cop fails to show. Hastily plugged in at the last second, the officers are shocked when Gary proves a natural. He stacks his résumé as the department’s best undercover assassin, using his psychology training to cultivate the ideal fictional hit man for each “customer.” His guises (including a redneck, Russian, and a Post Malone-looking guy) reveal as much about Gary as they do the buyer. 

Gary is also an avid birdwatcher, and in one scene explains to his bored colleagues how his favorite birds to spot are the ones that, without distinctive plumage, go unnoticed and uneaten. Gary is such a bird, driving his Honda Civic and feeding his cats so the world doesn’t disturb his peace. But like that other famous mild-mannered man Clark Kent, Gary himself feels like more of a disguise than the fake persona. He cares little for Superman and less for superego, the persona a valve for his bubbling id. 

It’s all fun and games until Maddy (Adria Arjona) tries to procure his talents. Maddy fears her abusive husband, and Gary finds her too innocent (and, frankly, too pretty) to entrap. Although premised on homicide and eavesdropped by the authorities, it’s a more charming first date than any I’ve had since the Obama years. She likes his persona, Ron, and moreover Gary likes him too. Ron is everything Gary wants to be, untethered from inhibition and the wearer of cool jackets. It is Ron, not Gary, who pursues her.

Linklater is the most philosophical director of our time, so despite all the later plot machinations he never loses sight of that central question of identity. Is the Self something we are, or something we create? Is there even a difference? We might judge Gary, or in this case Ron, for dating Maddy under false premises. But dating with pure honesty would doom the species in a generation, and the world must be populated. 

Is it the same man who puts a napkin on his lap for the first date, then licks barbecue sauce off his shirt for the 50th? The questions don’t stop at marriage. During college I knew men of unparalleled Dionysian capacity, only to see them years later in a tucked polo watching “Frozen” for the 400th time. Has the man evolved, or have two men passed the baton under one dome? Ask his wife; such distinctions matter less on the other side of 30. 

“Hit Man” was always an easy sell to me, with its true-blue movie star charisma, goofy disguises, establishing shots of New Orleans streetcars, etc. But what I admire most is its cold, dead, blackened little Grinch heart: While in the mode of a romantic thriller, “Hit Man” maintains a throughline of amorality which I find honest and in some ways more ethical than some of its contemporaries. 

The recent theme in cinema has been “positive nihilism,” most prominently seen and rewarded in Oscar juggernaut “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” These movies argue that nothing matters and rather than despair, we should celebrate our freedom from cosmic expectation. These characters never follow through, by coincidence the extent of their liberation is always Christian morality with a dash of premarital sex. Of course we don’t need God, because morality is just common sense. (Occasionally common senses don’t precisely align; we refer to these instances as “war.”)

None of this is new. Nietzsche’s famous “God is Dead” pronouncement was not him contracting his own hit on the deity, but rather the hypocrisy of a society that no longer believes in God but assumes his shadow is just the night sky. In another of those happy little coincidences, Gary often quotes from Nietzsche during his college lectures, with frequency as matters get hairy in his other life. Gary is a good man; he loves his cats, he loves his friends. But Ron is a dog person, so what happens when Gary proves the main obstacle to what Ron wants? 

Linklater doesn’t blink at the abyss; In fact, he bats his eyelashes.