The oblivious assassin: trained killers in films who are just like you and me

What does the recent cinematic phenomenon of characters who are unexpected killers tell us about ourselves?

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The assassin is a figure who holds an unwavering appeal for cinema. Assassins keep the nastiness at arm’s length; they give the impression of a job well done. This mythical figure goes as far back as Alan Ladd in the 1942 noir thriller This Gun For Hire; the combination of the romance of the loner, and the inbuilt guarantee of violence, is irresistible.

A slight variation on the formula gives us a fairly recent phenomenon—that of the dormant assassin who hides his gun-sight under a bushel, or who may not even know the sharp-shooting skills that she possesses.

Two such examples are opening this fortnight. In Barely Lethal, Hailee Steinfield plays a young Special Ops agent weary of a life of espionage and danger. She fakes her own death and enrols in high school, which has its own particular perils. And next week in American Ultra, Jesse Eisenberg plays a stoner who isn’t even cognisant of his own past training as an assassin until he is himself targeted for assassination by his former CIA handlers.

The idea that there are buried and unknowable parts of ourselves that can be triggered at will is an attractive one that has its roots in psychoanalytic theory. It means that no matter how mundane our lives, how dismal or underdeveloped our personalities, there is another us lurking within. A spectacular us.

The sort of psychological demarcation involved would render most of these sorts of characters unsuited to any meaningful life in society. They would, in short, be sociopaths. Would it really be desirable to have a mother who could switch in an instant from baking cookies to breaking necks, as Geena Davis does in The Long Kiss Goodnight? (That terrific film provides another case of the oblivious assassin; in this instance, Davis’s blood-stained past comes back to her after a road accident.) And who would want a father who could flip out as easily as Viggo Mortensen – mild-mannered café owner one minute, brutal exterminator the next – in A History of Violence?

These films are fables of unmanageable parental violence which allow us to fantasise that while our mothers and fathers may be vicious killers, at least they are on the side of good. Just as we turn to fairy stories as children to rationalise the different sides of our parents’ personalities (the wicked stepmother allowing us to cope with our mother’s rage by siphoning it off into a whole other person entirely) so we still find ourselves drawn to the same eternal myths as adults.

Only now we need to make peace with the contradictions in ourselves; the fact that we can be loving and harmonious members of society who nevertheless have malign or murderous thoughts. Trained killers can live as happily married couples (Prizzi’s Honour, Mr & Mrs Smith) and hit-men can have a cuddly side (Grosse Pointe Blank, Killers). Only occasionally will the contradictions be all-consuming, with the bad overwhelming the good (Serial Mom, The Stepfather).

If the bullets ever stopped flying, we might be forced to face something even more terrifying than unexplored rage: the possibility that we are not in any way exceptional. That we are every bit as drab as we fear in our darkest moments. Chilling, isn’t it? Let’s go on telling ourselves instead that we and those around us are latent killers waiting for the greenlight, or the red rag, that will render us special again.

Barely Lethal opens on 28 August; American Ultra opens on 4 September.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.