Perhaps it’s crass to summarize thoughts on The Killer by noting how director David Fincher has delivered the best comic book movie of the year. Of course, the alternative is matching the film to prestige-level competition to justify what an accomplished piece of work it is. That said, years ago, this material would have been given the same regard as Fincher’s Panic Room or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – excellent handles on genre material, but ultimately just pulpy fun. Now, with audiences starved for more mainstream, adult-centric fair, a neo-noir focused on a professional assassin after revenge is like giving a dog a big bone. Given the wry observations Michael Fassbender’s hitman makes throughout, he’d even mock the very notion of how the awards season has changed. But that’s neither here nor there, as the consideration comes down to how well a filmmaker as skillful as Fincher can handle material so well-suited for him.
Based on the French graphic novel series of the same name written by Alexis “Matz” Nolent and illustrated by Luc Jacamon, Fassbender stars as a nameless assassin (the variety of specific names for the fake identities he uses becomes the source of a hilarious running joke). This man is meticulous in his approach and masterful in his executions. However, an unexpected error while on the job leads to his perfectly assembled life being thrown into chaos. It results in the Killer’s romantic partner, Magdala (Sophie Charlotte), being severely beaten by a clean-up crew, which now means revenge is on the table.
There’s a commonly referenced idea that certain stories and characters match the director crafting them. While Fincher is not necessarily going on a ruthless journey to get back at those who put him in harm’s way (though I haven’t heard much from the Fox executives who worked on Alien 3 lately), it is easy to pair the acclaimed filmmaker’s own exacting nature with that of this Killer. If anything, that aids this film’s darkly humorous attitude, as we are constantly in his head, hearing his deadpan observations regarding the commercialization of our current society. Think of it as Fight Club moving even deeper into sociopathic behavior, but at least that guy had a crisis of conscience while remaining stuck in his Gen X purgatory.
Fassbender, entirely in the zone as we watch him channel a lean, mean, killing machine, doesn’t have time for empathy, as he constantly tells us. There are certainly emotions he’s continually letting slip, as his stone-cold presence can’t hide everything as we observe his various facial expressions, but that’s the balance this film is letting us in on. It’s easy to hear him say his mantra consists of five words (“I. Don’t. Give. A. F—.”), but we can’t trust it. Part of delivering a film bent on exploring the headspace of a detached individual is knowing there’s a reckoning occurring within him, however extreme that may be. Plus, there’s no movie without us seeing this Killer recognize that he must make hard choices to contend with his carefully constructed world falling apart around him.
Fortunately, those choices take us to various locations (Paris, New Orleans, New York, Chicago). Watching this Killer disguise himself in bland, beige, baggy clothes to blend in is slick enough, as are his methods of disposal, whether it comes to phones or bodies. However, it’s the extra details that Fincher is happy to let us see. While waiting for a target to appear during a sequence that makes us imagine a much darker take on Rear Window, we see the Killer demonstrate yoga, eat fast food, and attempt to maintain a heart rate below 60 before taking his shot. And as all this preparation is happening, he’s listening to The Smiths on his headphones (because when the excellent, pulse-pounding score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross needs to let up for a bit, Fincher has decided to provide a terrific soundtrack to round it all out).
Keeping Fincher’s collaborators in mind, the screenplay comes from Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven, and an uncredited writer on many of Fincher’s films), who was seemingly tasked with cutting this film down to the bone. While the sense of urgency is never too rushed because our man is a professional, there is no fat on the bone of this picture (even the opening credits sequence is efficient in its presentation). That speaks to what Walker and Oscar-winning editor Kirk Baxter were tasked with here.
Meanwhile, Erik Messerschmidt, the Oscar-winning cinematographer for Mank, provides the film with all its neo-noir visuals, highlighting just how particular the Killer is in the way he stalks his prey, as well as what can be accomplished when things get more visceral. An extended fight sequence, for example, finds the perfectly upsetting scenario when announcing ways to rattle the Killer’s precise timing.
Plus, along with the coolly compelling Fassbender, seemingly using this film as an opportunity to make up for some less than stellar choices before a 4-year absence from movies (he became a racecar driver during that time as well), The Killer also supplies a small but solid supporting cast. In particular, Charles Parnell, Arliss Howard, and Tilda Swinton show up in extended sequences to showcase their roles, and each is terrific. Given the film’s focus on a nihilistic lead character, finding eccentric supporting characters does just enough to tilt this movie even further on the side of something daring to suggest a lived-in universe, albeit one that is too cold for me to ever want to visit.
Given the worldview of this film, it’s only natural to observe the social commentary present. It’s not as heavy as other Fincher films, but I certainly clued into some very specific location choices reflecting the manner of the individuals unfortunate enough to have to spend time with the Killer. Fortunately, even with a character ready to execute at a moment’s notice, the film clearly revels in the amusing nature of this man and his musings on life. The actual kills in this film are too brutal and often too callous to fall into the category of “cool.” Still, their purpose in this story is not without meaning.
It is neat to see The Killer fall into the realm of assassin movies handled by auteurs with distinct stamps. Obviously, both this film and its graphic novel origins are inspired by Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, but Fincher can now join in with Jim Jarmusch and The Limits of Control, Stephen Soderbergh and The Limey, Michael Mann and Collateral, Seijun Suzuki and Branded to Kill, and many others. Is there a specific appeal for directors with this subject? I’m sure there are plenty of easy throughlines to consider. For Fincher, the opportunity to craft a story around another obsessed individual with a flexible sense of morality makes plenty of sense. Fortunately, he lined up his shot and executed it brilliantly.