David Fincher’s THE KILLER Review: Filmography as Autobiography

The piece below was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn’t exist.

If filmography is biography or to be more accurate, autobiography, then there’s a strong argument to be made that David Fincher’s (Gone Girl, The Social Network, Zodiac) latest film, The Killer, a loose adaptation of Alexis “Matz” Nolent and Luc Jacamon’s graphic novel series of the same name, qualifies, if not directly personal, then reflective of Fincher’s lifelong aesthetic sensibilities and preoccupations, of his perfectionism and obsession with method, methodology, and process.

Despite a generic, oft-used title, The Killer is anything but generic in form and function. Undoubtedly a self-conscious exercise in style, it fully, unironically embraces the conventions and tropes of the hitman/assassin sub-genre, merging Fincher’s cool, dispassionate, clinical style perfectly with a throwback existential thriller that mirrors its origin in French literary and philosophical traditions to create a best-in-class addition to the sub-genre, on par with Jim Jarmusch’s anti-thriller, The Limits of Control, and Anton Corbijn’s European art-thriller, The American (2009 and 2010, respectively).

The Killer centers on the unnamed title character (Michael Fassbender), a professional hitman with the obligatory code he spends the best part of 30 minutes sharing with the audience via soft-spoken voiceover. For the killer — like every fictional professional hitman before him and presumably after him — an obsession with order, precision, and control dominates not just his personality, but his actions as well. He’s nothing if not a man dedicated to the ritual of his craft. By following each carefully part of the plan, the killer minimizes risk and maximizes success, relying on various, yoga-inspired exercises and a smartwatch to both keep awake and monitor his heart rate.

Only when his target, an anonymous European on a clandestine date with a dominatrix, appears in the window across the boulevard after several days of waiting does the killer unpack his rifle, scope, and other accouterments of the assassin’s game. Stilling his mind through ritualized mind-talk and consciously moderating his breath, the killer pulls the trigger. Except, of course, it all goes sideways. The killer can predict almost everything, but he can’t predict random chance or a non-target suddenly stepping into the way of the bullet.

Rattled by the first-time mistake, the killer reminds himself to follow the plan, ditching practically everything connected to him before catching a flight to his home-base/hideout in the Dominican Republic. Unsurprisingly, every mistake, especially one involving a still living target, has consequences and the killer finds Magdala (Sophie Charlotte), his longtime lover— the only real-world physical and emotional connection he allows himself — near death in a hospital, the victim of a two-person hit squad sent by his superiors as cleaners (i.e., eliminate him and anyone close to him).

Fassbender plays the killer as a stoic, rarely talking (outside of voiceover), using his physicality and a piercing, near-unblinking gaze to convey the various suppressed emotions he feels. A killer betrayed leads naturally to a killer on what passes for a righteous rampage of revenge in the fictionalized world of professional assassins. Moving between his handler-lawyer, Hodges (Charles Parnell), Hodges’s executive assistant, Dolores (Kerry O’Malley), and the two assassins, one identified as the Brute (Sala Baker), the other as the Expert (Tilda Swinton), the killer enters — and exits — their lives as the personification of Death.

Each stop, from Paris to Santo Domingo, New Orleans, Florida, and Connecticut (among others), gives The Killer the kind of world-spanning, globe-trotting typical of spy-thrillers, but in Fincher’s hands, each stop becomes a mini-story, with each new setting giving Fincher and his collaborators, including screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en), cinematographer, Erik Messerschmidt (Mank), and frequent collaborators and co-composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Oscar winners for both The Social Network and Soul), an opportunity to depict via different looks, sounds, and ultimately, feel. At least for The Killer, Fincher has left behind his early career maximalist approach to filmmaking, shooting and editing with an emphasis on allowing the imagery, sounds, and Fassbender’s minimalist performance to take center stage. One-time post-punk band The Smiths also provide a running soundtrack for the killer and his daily/nocturnal activities.

No doubt The Killer will feel to some, if not exactly emotionless, then something close to it, an exercise in style over substance. Except here, style and substance are intertwined irrevocably. One can’t exist without the other (and vice versa). If there’s any theme or message, it’s partly to do with the randomness and chaos of the world undermining, maybe even refuting, the killer’s existential philosophy and his obsession with control. As a filmmaker known for his perfectionism (control by another name), learning and/or accepting the limits of control seem to be lessons Fincher considers worth acknowledging, if not outright embracing.

The Killer opens in limited theatrical release on Friday, October 27th, and Netflix streaming on Friday, November 10th.

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