After a three-year break, David Fincher is back with a very un-Fincher-like film with The Killer. This finely crafted film sees the director subverting just about every convention of the hitman sub-genre in a way I found both inventive and a little perplexing at the same time.
Fincher is of course known for the directorial flourish that’s made films like Se7en, Fight Club and Gone Girl part of the canon. Here though he strips back the fireworks in favour of a more measured, thoughtful approach to a story filled with unlikeable characters. The result is a film that eschews the usual tropes of the hitman movie; instead becoming more of an intimate character study about a man struggling to maintain his composure in the face of extreme provocation.
The killer of the title is an unnamed assassin (Michael Fassbender). He’s an elite “professional” who meticulously prepares for each job. The film opens with him stalking a target in Paris. It’s mostly tedious hours of watching and waiting for the mark to arrive. When he does though, our man springs into action. He recites his mantra, which outlines what he needs to do. He calms his heart rate and breathing – and takes the shot. But a last-second twist means he misses, shooting someone else instead. He hurriedly packs up and flees. He heads to his home in the Dominican Republic; but when he gets there, something is wrong. It soon becomes apparent he’s been targeted for “clean-up” over the botched Paris job. Whoever did it has however missed him and instead brutalised his girlfriend Magdala (Sophie Charlotte). She has escaped but is comatose in the hospital. So the killer sets out to track down those responsible – starting with the lawyer (Charles Parnell) who acts as broker; the Brute (Sala Baker) and the Expert (Tilda Swinton) who carried out the attack; and the client (Arliss Howard) who – presumably – ordered it.
Much like the killer’s painstaking process, Fincher takes a detailed approach to the material. Andrew Kevin Walker provides the screenplay, adapting Alexis Nolent’s comic book of the same title. The basic premise involves contrasting the killer’s methodical approach with the messy reality of the world. To highlight this, the film is broken into six chapters (and an epilogue). In all of them, the killer recites his credo, which includes things like “forbid empathy”, and “anticipate, don’t improvise”. But things never go to plan. He can’t entirely “forbid empathy” given the circumstances; and in one particularly rivetting scene, has to improvise extensively. After the gripping opening segment, Fincher ratchets up the tension after the second chapter. The killer is faced with increasing danger, but he’s not going to break down. Instead he digs ever deeper into his persona as a way of coping with the chaos around him.
The Killer reminded me a little of the terrific Jim Jarmusch film, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (1999), in which an assassin similarly followed his own personal code, with a good dose of Zen thrown in. And like Jarmusch, Fincher finds the lighter side of the brutal business. A running gag sees the killer using names from classic TV shows, including Felix Unger and Sam Malone, as his aliases. The soundtrack is dominated by songs from The Smiths, their intense ironies counterpointing the on-screen action. But be aware, some of the action is, well, non-action. Some scenes move quite slowly, while others zip along. So don’t go in expecting a thriller ride.
Fincher also creates the space to make some pointed observations about modern life, including the fact that the killer has a distinct advantage in escaping detection because people are too distracted by their phones to notice him. The film also name-drops some of the most prevalent (pernicious?) corporate brands that seek to entice hard-earned dollars from us.
Michael Fassbender (surprisingly, appearing in his first feature film since Dark Phoenix in 2019) is ideally cast as the title character. He has to dial back his usual style, but imbues the character with an intensity that conveys what he’s all about. Most of the other characters are only involved in one of the chapters, so their involvement is necessarily limited. I did however particularly enjoy Tilda Swinton’s (Asteroid City) restrained outing as the Expert; and the less restrained performance of Kerry O’Malley as Dolores, the lawyer’s secretary.
In my book, any new work from David Fincher is worth seeing. And while The Killer isn’t another Fight Club, it’s a fascinating portrait of a character on the edge.
The Killer is in cinemas now and will be available on Netflix from 10 November 2023
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television