When exploring the filmmaking discipline of one David Fincher, one notices how much of a risktaker he can be. And certainly, how clever, witty, and keen he’ll be to probe into character mythologies with both the right material, and a heuristic eye to navigate across. After diving headfirst into the mildly hedonistic beats of Hollywood filmmaking with the pandemic impacted Mank, he’s now applying the technical aspect like it were a mantra, a basis for living. That’s the creed by which The Killer exists, to think technically and mechanically through the otherwise typical hitman plot. One borrowing beats from the likes of Rear Window or Leon the Professional, along with that of a famed French graphic novel, then taking cautious steps toward an original path brimming with cold, dry wit and blistering cynicism toward the titular character’s very process. Serious self-deprecation and brooding told with an unashamedly laidback candor.
The Killer (Michael Fassbender), who never discloses his actual name and goes primarily by aliases taken from sitcom characters (a fun running gag), is following a simple assignment in Paris when we first see him. A stoic type who maintains an inner narrator likes to keep fit, practice yoga, and jam to The Smiths, all in the name of maintaining a high focus on his work. His handler Hodges (Charles Parnell), a former mentor in his days as a law student is often satisfied by his results – clean, non-empathic eliminations all around.
However, he slips up and misses a mark, running under cover of night to avoid prosecution. His first instinct is to hole up in the Dominican Republic until the heat dies down, take a new identity, and await his next assignment. Even that’s impossible with his girlfriend Magdala (Sophie Charlotte) slain by a cleanup crew answering for his mistakes. A revenge plot soon blends with a detective caper as our Killer seeks clues from Hodges, an Expert he keeps on retainer (Tilda Swinton), and a wealthy Client (Arliss Howard) pulling a few strings.
Across a brisk two hours where energy is never sparse – even the rapid opening credits aren’t immune, Fincher takes simple character development to a lofty, complicated threshold. Only mantras and minimal oxygen guide our Killer to any place of clarity or logic when not persistently confronting a brush with identity crisis. The very code he’s abided by went ahead and bit him in the hand; now he’s trapped doing damage control while moving ahead to redefine the very role of his position as a highly paid assassin and separate the fallacy beneath its stakes. Presented before the viewer is a highly perceptive, misanthropic, cocky individual nursing a wounded ego, doing so with an even further bruised sense of humor proudly belonging to the director.
Reuniting with Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) on the screenplay, Kirk Baxter (Dumb Money) on the editing, and Erik Messerschmidt (Devotion) framing shots like they were lenses into a probing psyche, Fincher deals an organized hand when rolling the dice on an irreverent figure. It is a gamble that handsomely pays off with a dropped jaw or two, balancing the straightforward nature of Alexis Nolent and Luc Jacamon’s novel with their respectful, often silly take. The typical hitman or assassin story would insist on a dark, brooding rigidity with a finite subtlety that renders the action on screen quiet while still determined to shock. With source material on hand, both director and scribe take the same bold step in aiming for something more animated and reflexive. While even that is slightly jarring to start, eventually I found myself following along with every move, word, and light physical gesture. It’s often all in the hand, holding a weapon, as far as violent activity, done with certain poise.
The way Fassbender strolls and sprints about in his fedora, gray suit, and slacks, he’s far from bumbling as a precise gig worker, but he’s not as gung-ho as, say, John Wick. He strives for certain restrictions, though even he soon acknowledges he’s human, and he’s prone to mistakes. To see an equally disciplined actor live up to the peak of his abilities in such a role, whether newfound or preexistent, is a keen-eyed nirvana leading to one of his best performances. One to carry in his back pocket if ever he’d dip further into the comedy well. He’s the difference maker in this effort; any other actor to assume the guise would’ve lacked the nuance necessary not to lose grip on that certain evil while cracking wise and playing the self-aware card. The likes of Parnell, Howard, and especially Swinton (whom I’d have loved to see more of), in their momentary roles, go beyond extra to sharpen his inquisitive nature and inadvertently spike his blood pressure.
It’s Fincher’s role not just to guide the story along on its uniquely blazon path, but to keep Fassbender grounded while trotting forward. Sharing similar brain cells as they do here, they’re well rooted, careful not to emulate anything they’ve once tried on their own, albeit with stark differences in tone. It comes as a blistering shock how well his tonal beats play well together, and bounce off each other. We’ve seen him take serious stabs at crime (Zodiac) and mystery (Gone Girl), along with something of a salty, dry, upbeat yet still firmly dramatic palette cleanser as of late (both Mank and The Social Network are more than privy here). Never has the combination of all three pillars proved so attainable to his methodical, stiff, often unadaptable approach to filmmaking. In some small way, it just raises their stake, with welcome results.
A film like The Killer may only come around often enough for an auteur like Fincher to seek a fresh avenue and craft a new strand with otherwise familiar formulas, and an oblivious approach to the very plot he’s working with and taking chip shots toward. He and Fassbender may still be creatures of habit, in their respective terms. One continually enthralled by the art of genre hybridity, the other coming more to grips with his sardonic side. And yet when they’re placed together in the same creative space, there’s no disconnect. Only the joy of collaboration, a fondness for the process of demanding work, and how that can be blindsided before something unexpected is forged. For this being their first joint go-around (no excuse for it having taken this long), it’s like they’ve been friends for years. In the same way that Fincher’s known his audience over three-plus decades, building trust with most of his projects. To get all this and then some out of a simple “hatchet man” plot? Unexpected, yet unsurprisingly enthralling just the same. (A-; 4/5)
The Killer is currently playing in select theaters nationwide, ahead of a Netflix bow November 10; rated R for strong violence, language, and brief sexuality; 118 minutes.