A Film That Will Slay You
“The Killer” is most likely not David Fincher’s final film, but it would be a fitting swan song if it were. The legend of his exacting directing methods, particularly towards his actors, has grown with every film. He makes his cast do dozens, sometimes hundreds of takes; look over his filmography and you’ll see they rarely work with him twice. Fincher has even been known to stop and reposition a background actor’s arm if the angle displeases him. Put simply, every inch of the frame belongs to him, and he has little care for the comfort level of his collaborators. He would get along swimmingly with the protagonist of “The Killer,” played to perfection by Michael Fassbender, who has no name (maybe it’s David) but has similarly dedicated himself to a life of total control and emotional detachment.
On the surface, “The Killer” seems a fairly typical film about a contract killer. The title character is an evolution of the samurai, living a quiet, anonymous existence punctuated by bursts of violence. He has a code that he repeats to himself over and over. “Stick to the plan,” he says in voice-over. “Anticipate, don’t improvise.” In the bravura opening sequence, the Killer prepares for a job by moving into an abandoned WeWork area, living monastically for days, observing from an elevated vantage point every detail of the street where his gruesome task is to take place, preparing himself mentally, spiritually, and emotionally for the millisecond of work to come—and then watching it all go wrong.
The plot that follows takes us directly from Point A to Point B to Point C, and so on. It’s not complicated. There is one person the Killer cares about, and his screw-up has put her in the crossfire. Our man takes to the road, hunting down and executing anyone who might hurt her. There are scenes of fast, intense violence, all staged with a precision we have come to expect from Fincher, but which still thrill in their execution. This is not exactness for its own sake. It’s simply what is required to do the job of entertaining and enlightening his audience.
Coming in at a brisk-by-today’s-standards 118 minutes, “The Killer” is a winningly propulsive affair, never stopping to linger on anything that doesn’t move the story forward. In a sense, it mirrors the single-minded pursuit of its protagonist, although the film is more nuanced and self-aware than he is. There’s a bleak humor in the discrepancy between the Killer’s repeated claim to total control and the pure chaos that is unleashed in the first scene. But beneath its thrills and laughs, it also finds a soulful, almost metaphysical pitch. The Killer tells himself he doesn’t care about anything, and that he’s merely embarking on this task to prevent further fallout, but we can see the truth. There’s passion behind his dispassion. He is equal parts skill and delusion. This is what it takes to make it in this world.
And not just any world. Fincher expertly locates the Killer in this particular moment in time, when a person can, if they choose to, move through life without any human connection. He has a home but rarely lives there because he’s always working. He lives in hotel rooms and Airbnbs (although he stopped using the latter because “superhosts love their nanny-cams”). When he needs something, he orders it from Amazon and collects it at a public pick-up location. Postmates, the food delivery service, play a central role in his plan. While at work, the only people with whom he has any human interaction are his victims. The only surprise is that Zoom doesn’t make an appearance, but that might be too intimate for him.
With its numerous references to internet start-ups, “The Killer” has been read by some as an indictment of the dehumanizing impact of the gig economy, with our protagonist forced to fend for himself after one bad day at the office, but there’s more to it than that. The Killer isn’t under any financial pressure due to his job gone wrong. His plight is philosophical, not economic. More ubermensch than Uber driver. He has more than enough savings to live on, so why does he do what he does? Why do any of us? Fincher is probing deeper than dollars and cents, getting under the skin of life — not just work — in 2023, when everything is available to us except the meaning and connection that most desire.
This film’s spirit is expertly embodied by Fassbender, who is mostly known for expressions of unbridled emotion but here maintains a placid exterior with currents of hurt surging underneath. One of the film’s best jokes is that the Killer listens to The Smiths, implying he was once a melodramatic teenager. With the sadness behind his eyes, you can see it. In fact, outside of a brief but memorable appearance by Tilda Swinton, Fassbender is the only recognizable face in “The Killer,” turning his movie star charisma into a magnetic force field. He draws us closer to him and further from the world around him, accentuating, perhaps even validating his isolation. By the end, we’re the Killer, and he is us, and the most startling thing of all is that it’s a pretty comfortable place to be.
“The Killer” is currently streaming on Netflix.