Review: "The Killer", or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love David Fincher
Belated thoughts on Netflix's gig-economy assassin thriller
As I’m catching up on some of the movies I missed over the last 12 months in advance of my Top 10 Films of 2023 piece coming later in December, you might see some reviews of slightly-less-current movies popping up here. This review of David Fincher’s The Killer was posted to Letterboxd, but I like how it turned out, so here it is, slightly revised and fleshed out, for posterity’s sake.
David Fincher is one of those directors I have always respected, but never really loved. He is unambiguously a very gifted visual storyteller whose films are pretty much all masterpieces of craft, but as stories they often wind up leaving me cold, either excessively didactic (Gone Girl, Fight Club) or never quite orchestrating their many good ideas into a strong unified thematic punch (The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). In either case, I walk away in awe of the aesthetics, but never quite finding a core vein of substance to sink my teeth into and really go crazy for.
The Killer, released last month on Netflix, is easily the most I've ever enjoyed one of Fincher's films, the only one I unreservedly love, in no small part because it feels like it's in conversation with what I've previously found frustrating about Fincher's work. Much has been made of the ways the film feels 'personal’ to the filmmaker, given how the Michael Fassbender character's obsessive methods mirror Fincher's own directorial style. If that's the case, though, The Killer feels lacerating to me, an auto-critique that brutally tears down the mythos around this kind of archetype before building the character back up as an empty signifier, blank and knowingly hollow.
Just look at the first thirty minutes of the film, as Fassbender works out of the unfinished WeWork space in Paris (a truly amazing touch). This stretch is awash in nonstop narration laid over images of the killer's intricate routine, and at first the relentless self-importance of Fassbender’s musings feel suffocating. But the film is smarter than that; you start paying attention to the words, and the pretension is clearly purposeful. This man is a nihilist trying to spin his selfish, abhorrent immorality as some kind of poetry – "I don't give a fuck" as an all-encompassing way of life, the mantra of a man whose found his place in the detritus of our gig economy hellscape. If this is Fincher reflecting on his own working methods, he is more brutal to himself than any critic could ever possibly be – especially since the apex of this long sequence, the pay-off to Fassbender lecture us about the genius of his precise methodology for half an hour, is the eponymous killer completely bungling what should have been an easy hit. He points, he shoots, and he fucks up royally. That’s interesting – the character totally undercutting himself right as he's supposed to triumph. If the viewer were at all inclined to buy into the killer’s self-mythologizing, the film is now telling us, in no uncertain terms, to knock it off. This guy isn't as special as he thinks he is, if he's special at all.
That attitude infuses the whole film, and I find it infectiously interesting.
As an action procedural – a movie dedicated to watching a violent professional go through every step of the process – The Killer is immaculate. This is, on paper, as basic and worn out a narrative formula as exists: the hitman who has a job go wrong and then goes after the people who burned him. But it's done with such overwhelming attention to detail, such exceptional craftsmanship, that even just on those most basic narrative terms, the film is a treat. We’ve seen this story countless times before; I don't know if we've seen it from a director with as obsessively precise and casually cool a sense of style as the archetypal killer himself.
But that's not the limit of Fincher's ambition or interest here, because the procedural is undercutting itself at every turn as the protagonist continually runs into the limits of his own inflated ego. It becomes a truly amazing running joke how many time Fassbender starts going through his professional mantras – ‘always follow the plan, never improvise, blah blah blah’ – while almost never following through on the substance of what he’s saying. The surest way to know his plans and schemes are about to go wrong is when he starts monologuing about their importance. The whole film is really funny in this sly, self-deprecating way, the killer's casual digs at the behavior of others and the absurdity of the modern capitalist signifiers eventually coming around to shine back on him. In the end, The Killer is compelled to systematically, surgically reveal why this character – and why this entire character type – is full of shit. If the rich targets are really this idiotic, and if the modern security state really is as easily hackable as dressing casually and buying a few cheap gadgets on Amazon, then what exactly are we celebrating? Is this really genius? If Fassbender's character has come to find any inner peace at the film's end, it comes through accepting how he is, in truth, unexceptional.
Like I said – if this is autobiographical, it's almost uncomfortably lacerating.
The parallel tension of the entire film is just how exceptionally made it is, Fincher tearing down the myth of the obsessive loner genius with one hand even as he proves his own exceptional talent with the other. I love how the film defamiliarizes mundane spaces: the half-finished (or maybe abandoned) WeWork office; airports and airplanes; hotel rooms; storage lockers and office hallways. All transformed into spaces of paranoia and opportunity. Erik Messerschmidt's cinematography is unreal, wherever the camera goes. I am obsessed with the way this movie uses light and color. There is a richness and variance to it that I actually found a little startling from Fincher, whose digital films tend to be a little cooler or steelier. It’s still got this uniquely digital capture of colors, but more akin to how Michael Mann might do it; there's a lot of Miami Vice in here, in how this film captures skylines and horizons. But all of it is shot through with Fincher’s obsessive eye for geometry and exacting compositions. Just an all-out cinematographic masterpiece, one so brilliant it makes me actively furious this didn't get a fuller theatrical release; the film never played within 50 miles of me, and we do actually get a lot of Netflix releases here in Iowa City. It's unconscionable to me that this has been stuck on streaming instead of out in the world playing on the biggest and best screens available – it would be such an overwhelming big-screen experience.
The Killer is so good that by the time Tilda Swinton shows up, it almost feels like putting a hat on a hat, like it's maybe overkill to bring in a talent this monumental to something already so rich. Then she does her Tilda Swinton thing and elevates it all to another level, as she always does. I love her scene because she's basically acting against a Michael Fassbender-shaped brick wall, monologuing into the void this weird, sad man has created of himself. Swinton is one of the few who could make it work.
And of course, she also gives us something of a profane thesis statement for the entire film, calling the killer on his shit with a story about a bear sodomizing a hunter, and the hunter eagerly coming back for more.
This movie rocks.
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