Film Editor James Richards praises David Fincher’s The Killer – a compulsively stylish thriller from a filmmaker at the top of his game
It almost goes without saying. Netflix’s The Killer (2023) is a film about an ice-cool hitman, courtesy of the equally ice-cool David Fincher and yes… you wouldn’t be the first to compare the two. It’s a comparison that the film actively encourages; whether through the knowing luridity of its premise, its tagline (‘Execution is Everything’), or the mere fact that its titular Killer (Michael Fassbender) lives his life by a rigid set of rules. Rules – of course – being something that Fight Club (1999) director Fincher knows a thing or two about…
‘Stick to your plan’
Fincher’s brief for The Killer is simple: to adapt writer Alexis Nolent’s long-form (1998-present) graphic novel of the same name; keeping what fits and eliminating what doesn’t. While parts of this source do end up on the chopping block (many of its more overtly political themes specifically), Fincher generally makes sure that the rudiments of Nolent’s story arrive at the big screen in one piece. Fincher’s Killer begins his film on a Parisian stakeout. A stakeout that goes terribly awry; forcing the Killer into hiding and thawing his usually impenetrable cool. From there, the film makes a speedy shift into revenge thriller-mode, as its protagonist starts to mix business with displeasure: hunting down the assassins who have wronged him rather than the targets he gets paid to eliminate. To say any more would spoil the fun.
The one rule that Fincher consistently breaks. This latest film marks his eleventh collaboration with longtime producer (and wife) Ceán Chaffin – not that Chaffin is the only Fincher favourite to make their reappearance here. The Killer serves as a reunion with Se7en (1995) scribe Andrew Kevin Walker, whose sinuous screenplay quietly reinforces his status as one of Hollywood’s best writers – and one that has somehow never quite received their due. Frequent Fincher favourites Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are also back on composer duties; though the duo slightly miss the exalted heights of their Social Network (2010) or Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) soundtracks here.
Fincher’s directorial style is as matter-of-fact as ever. Substance becomes style in The Killer: a film which avoids expressionism like the plague and keeps us at a permanent arm’s length from its anti-hero. Although we are given frequent access to the character’s thoughts via voiceover, these interjections mostly take the form of Bateman-esque banalities and clichés; providing us with explanations but no true insight. Even the Killer’s look comes off conspicuously inconspicuous: Fassbender’s unmarked white van, sensible haircut and ever-present shades present a picture of stark, unfeeling professionalism. When we watch Tilda Swinton (also a returning Fincher collaborator) face off against Fassbender towards the end of the film, we do so in the knowledge that we are in the presence of adults – on either side of the camera.
‘Never yield an advantage’
Fincher never yields an advantage and this new leading man is one of his strongest yet. Delivering a performance of shark-like detachment, Fassbender appears in each and every one of the film’s scenes and even beyond… via the aforementioned voiceover. Michael Fassbender provides a constant presence in a film otherwise obsessed with transience and liminality. Fincher rarely settles down: even the apartment that The Killer calls home for its first twenty minutes is sparsely furnished, able to be completely abandoned at the drop of a (bucket) hat. The film places its sights on places and sites. On entrances and exits; travel, travel and more travel; on hallways, highways, stairs, lifts, planes and everything in-between. In this amorphous non-setting, the dramatic unity provided by the stone-faced, drily comic Fassbender cannot be understated. His presence is that of a storybook narrator – no wonder that the film’s narrative is split into chapters.
‘Anticipate, don’t improvise’
A rule obeyed to the letter. As one clue leads to the next, Fincher’s film inexorably draws you into a slickly and sickly addictive rhythm of relocation, investigation and execution. The formulaic nature of The Killer provides the key to its watchability: allowing viewers to ready themselves for the next kill, thereby ensuring that as much of the film’s entertainment value is derived from the anticipation of violence as the violence itself. Here, Fincher takes practicality and matter-of-factness to such forensic extremes that they begin to loop back around into stylisation and absurdity again.
‘Fight only the battle you’re paid to fight’
And Fincher takes no detours: his Killer is almost pathologically true to its title. The film’s opening-credits montage lasts little longer than a minute, displaying the names of cast and crew over a barely-comprehensible slideshow of premeditation and murder. In a very real sense, this desensitised style seems the perfect counterpoint to the recent glut of assassin movies coming our way; a style that moves beyond irony and moral condemnation into bluntly telling a story about a man who kills. This fidelity to a premise is subversive in of itself. Rather than sermonising on the moral not-good-ness of being a serial murderer, The Killer presents a straightforward, by-the-manual hitman story… thus inviting you to draw your own conclusions far, far more readily.
David Fincher’s latest feature stacks up to its inspirations; joining Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) and Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (1999) as a model of the philosopher-hitman subgenre. Through its blend of scrupulous preparation and unscrupulous murder, The Killer provides one of the year’s most compelling moviegoing experiences.
The Killer is in available to stream now.
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