Chloë Sevigny Plays a Transsexual Assassin in Hit & Miss

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July 11 2012 4:46 PM

The Hit Man Who Becomes a Hit Woman

Chloë Sevigny is terrific as a transsexual assassin in the uneven Hit & Miss.

Hit & Miss.

Sky Atlantic.

The British series Hit & Miss (DirecTV, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET) opens with a view to a kill. A hooded figure wields a gun with a very long sound suppressor, a verbose silencer, and shoots his prey on the roof of a parking garage. The shooter strides back to his car and pulls the hood from his head to unveil a rare femme fatale: The terrific Chloë Sevigny is playing a contract killer named Mia, and in the rearview mirror she puts a tube of lipstick to her mouth with ritualistic precision. She drives off to continue the striptease at her apartment—one of those vast bare lofts so often inhabited by hired killers of a melancholy bent. Preparing to shower, she strips to show her waist, her breasts, her rear—and who is this little fellow dangling from a fringe of pubic floss? Mia is a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual, and Sevigny wears a prosthesis in a casual way, part of a low-key performance that’s as naturalistic as can be, given the local climate of sentimental pulp.

The next day, Mia heads in to see her boss, Eddie (played by Mike Leigh regular Peter Wight), an avuncular crime king of Manchester. Broad-bellied Eddie inhabits a screen gangster’s usual perch: a corner banquette in a red-lit restaurant. Eddie hands Mia a letter from her ex. In an earlier life, before she decided to remake her body to match her soul, Mia had a meaningful romance with a woman. Now the ex is writing to say that she is dying of cancer and that Mia, oh by the way, has an 11-year-old son.

Mia motors into the pastoral drear of the northern hills—oppressive gray skies, looming wind turbines—to see her ex, but it’s too late. The woman’s will designates Mia as the guardian of her kids. The small and sensitive 11-year-old, Ryan (Jordan Bennie), has three stepsiblings. The teenage girl is Riley (Karla Crome); boiling with sass, she’s the most vocal about wanting Mia to bugger off, fir fock’s sake. The teenage boy is Levi, played by Reece Noi, who portrays a distinct sub-phase of adolescence: boyishness defined by the boy’s inability to recognize that he is not a man. Then there’s an unfairly cute little ballerina named Leonie (Roma Christensen), who believes that “Mommy’s walking with Jesus.”

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In interviews, series creator Paul Abbott has said he initially developed Hit & Miss as a simple show about a transsexual mother of five but grew concerned that the penis was “an obstructive prop”: “It seemed that was all there was to talk about." So he threw in the hit man thing. Mia uses her professional skills to help the family—teaching her bullied son how to jab at a boxer’s heavy bag, for instance, and cracking the ring finger of a black-hatted landlord. Still, the hit man thing very much feels thrown in, and the uneven tone of the series reflects the trauma of the impact. Hit & Miss has so many ups and downs that it cannot dodge the critical judgment any hack might deliver by quoting its title.

One moment you are sitting there watching a stagy kitchen-sink melodrama about a struggling family—and then a dreamlike expressionistic sequence will erupt, as when Mia, marinated in brandy and self-pity, paws through a box of childhood mementoes, applies a long fake nose, strips before a mirror, and tries Pinocchio’s line about wanting to be a real boy. One moment another anonymous victim is getting his throat slit bloody—and then the family, plus Eddie the crime boss, is enjoying an impromptu soul-music dance party at home. Sevigny is steadily clever, and Hit & Miss handles her character’s situation with sensitivity, which has perhaps exhausted the series’ reserves of sensibility: You are sitting there watching an intriguingly garbled episode of Charles in Charge.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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