Film Review: The Killer
Director: David Fincher
Plan B and Boom! Studios
Streaming on Netflix: 11.10
The Killer epitomizes David Fincher’s tendency toward consistently brilliant craftsmanship in the service of movies that are almost always good and rarely truly great.
A professional assassin, identified only as The Killer (Michael Fassbender, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Steve Jobs) is staking out a hotel room in Paris with a sniper rifle, methodically preparing to take out a high-level target. When he pulls the trigger, a bystander gets in the way of the bullet, and The Killer is forced to make a quick getaway. When he gets back to his hideout in the Dominican Republic, he discovers that his handler, Hodges (Charles Parnell, Top Gun: Maverick) has dispatched other assassins to tie up loose ends, and The Killer’s girlfriend, Magdala (Sophie Charlotte, Dark Days), has been brutalized and lies near death, all in an attempt to get her to give up his location. The Killer now must go against his mantra of “Fight only the battle you’re paid to fight” as he sets out to eliminate everyone who betrayed him while \sending the message that they all have messed with the wrong man.
The story couldn’t be more perfunctory, and that’s entirely intentional. The Killer is meant to be nothing more or less than a procedural thriller detailing the art form of cold-blooded assassination and the lifestyle of someone who chooses to do it. Fincher (Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) has a mastery of his craft that recalls Alfred Hitchcock, and each meticulously composed frame is polished and pristine in a way that we rarely see in the quantity-over-quality approach to modern “content” making. The fact that the story is so deliberately lacking in substance takes some getting used to, though when I finally settled in and embraced the idea that this was meant to be a unique variation on the “day in the life” genre, I found myself having a lot of fun with it.
Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven, Sleepy Hollow) infuses a wry wit into the proceedings that’s quite irresistible, whether it’s the deadpan observations in the title character’s voiceover narration or the running gag of him using the names of ’60s and ’70s sitcom characters as aliases. The biggest obstacle that both writer and director face is in giving us a reason why we should care whether this amoral protagonist comes out on top, and their solution is as wrongheaded as it gets. Magdala’s character exists only to be sexually assaulted, allowing the antagonists to cross a line that makes them just enough worse than the hero to sell the story. It’s lazy and tasteless, and as is invariably the case with this ploy, the focus is solely on a man’s anger and vengeance, reducing the woman to a mere plot device. It’s a significant misfire in a movie that otherwise stays firmly on target.
Fassbender deftly mixes sociopathic intensity with a dispassionate detachment and quirky humor, making The Killer an entertaining if rather enigmatic character. Oscar winner Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton) steals the movie as The Expert, a fellow assassin who is on The Killer’s list and who instantly accepts her fate the moment he shows up for her, making conversation between professionals rather than pleading for her life. It’s a first-rate dark comic performance that adds a great deal. Arliss Howard (Full Metal Jacket, The Lost World: Jurassic Park) is also memorable as The Client, the self-absorbed and clueless one-percenter who is the final person on The Killer’s list.
Despite coming up short in its plotting, The Killer should be required viewing in film schools as it’s practically a two-hour masterclass in directing shot by shot. It hits its target inasmuch as it will satisfy Fincher fans, and it’s an enjoyable little stop on the way to what will hopefully be a more thoughtful and ambitious next project. –Patrick Gibbs
Read more reviews of Fincher films:
Film Review: Mank