Directed by David Fincher
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker
They will tell you, and indeed I had been told myself, that The Killer is a comedy, and I guess I can't really argue with that, though I think it would've been nice if somebody had also mentioned this to its director, David Fincher, or to its writer, Andrew Kevin Walker (reuniting with Fincher for the first time since their collaboration on 1995's biggest barrel of laughs, Seven). Okay, I know; this is by far too belligerent a way to start in on a movie I'm going to tell you is good. But it gets at how it operates as, if not a comedy, then as a satire (of a genre, of the wider culture of 2023, of Fincher himself, whatever), and this is to say, it does so incredibly intermittently and not at all cohesively. Mostly—it would depend on how you weight words versus images in motion pictures, but even going against my own "images over words" instincts, let's say it's still about 90%—it's just an action thriller. I'm not sure that approaching it from this angle is even the right way to go about it; I'm not even completely sure that the first ten minutes or so of it, which are far and away "the funny part" of it, actually would be as funny as I found them at the time, if I hadn't been primed for them to be. These first ten minutes, anyway, suggest a movie that the rest of the movie doesn't really live up to, and its returns to the mode of these first ten minutes, though not infrequent, at least become less frequent as the film goes on, and more than infrequent they become brief insertions into a movie that, otherwise, isn't asking for them to be there.
I should explain what those first ten minutes do, then: basically they have Michael Fassbender, playing The Killer (it's that kind of movie, though everyone else does get some kind of human name in addition to an archetypal label), droning on, and on, by way of voiceover narration, like somebody who pretends to be a Navy SEAL on the Internet. The funny part is that he genuinely is a super-assassin, presently in Paris to murder a man for reasons he doesn't know and has no interest in learning. He's waiting in a WeWork facility across the way from a hotel where he knows the man will eventually be, and he muses, more-or-less stream-of-conscious and randomly, about his process, his rules, and his philosophy (mostly just a form of defensive nihilism), as well as making several asides that barely have anything to do with anything. As this goes on, and it goes on for a while, the imagery is that of a patient, hyper-competent professional straining to keep to his discipline amidst the hurry-up-and-wait boredom of his romanticized job, which in fact works solely to make him cooler. And the juxtaposition of the incredibly-lame, self-aggrandizing, very-online, not-even-smart (he can't remember the name to attribute to Aleister Crowley's single most famous quote), sometimes completely-childish ("I. don't. give. a. fuck.", recited exactly like that), and frankly borderline-incoherent rambling of his inner monologue against the very conventional imagery of a suave super-murderer done up with all the suave pristine chilliness and ratcheting tension of a Fincher film is, indeed, hilarious. Hell, it's only let down at all by the line in the title of this review; it should just be two "redundancies" since the third one just steps on the laugh. It's still funny because our fellow doesn't actually seem to have built any redundancy into his plan. Not even "if I miss, should I fire a second round and hope?" Because he does in fact miss, and the really funny part is that the unmistakable implication is that he was too damn busy yammering at himself about how he's a bad enough dude to kill the president of France or whatever to do his fucking job correctly.
Following this, he escapes, but by the time he returns to his hideaway in the Dominican Republic, the consequences of his mistake have come home, through two other assassins (Sala Baker and Tilda Swinton) who have tortured and attempted to kill his girlfriend (Sophie Charlotte). She escaped, and he swears vengeance, and he works his way through his own handlers (Charles Parnell and Kerry O'Malley) until he finds those assassins, and eventually he finds the client that hired him in the first place (Arliss Howard).
That's it for plot, by the way, but after those opening ten minutes it is only very occasionally that it revives their peculiar tone; and the result is what feels like an intentionally small and basic genre exercise that, thanks to those first ten minutes, has had a semblance of, I don't even know what—commentary? knowingness? just smugness, maybe?—imposed on it. (The assumption would absolutely have to be that this is the only reason Fincher and Walker could possibly have bothered sourcing this from an existing work, and that the faux-profound narration is the hook of the comic book this is based on. It must be very funny in the comic, or the story must be a whole lot more complex to lift it out of pure genericism, because it sure isn't its craft based on the pages full of mediocre figurework and hideously-arbitrary layouts that I've seen.) In any case, the goal of the movie is to present the Killer as a satirical fake-it-till-you-make-it manifestation of modern pathologies, the kind of guy who would so readily describe himself as "a sigma male" that I guess the screenplay must've been finished before that phrase was coined, who openly decries empathy as something that only gets in your way in today's chaotic, uncaring world. (And the film really wants to lean hard on the contradiction between his denial of empathy and how personally he's taking the violence inflicted upon the one he loves, except... it's not a contradiction, and I genuinely do think Fincher and Walker, as well as many of the people writing about this movie, might have been well-served by looking up what that word means.) But anyway, if our Killer doesn't really fuck up more than the non-satirical version of this character already would, in service to his function in the kind of intentionally small and basic genre exercise we've identified it as, it's hard to say what—if anything—this ultimately accomplishes, besides sort of just gesturing at satire.
I guess it affords him a personality—or an anti-personality, which is much the same thing—though who the hell knows, it might be as much an expression of a major contemporary filmmaker's reluctance to merely do genre, because he wants to remind you he's better than genre, even though he's often been spectacularly good at just being a genre director. It's not, even so, an unfair desire for Fincher to hold: for every straightforward genre masterpiece he's made (Seven, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), there really is another that's been brilliantly warped around a purely intellectual argument (Zodiac, Gone Girl). But those don't feel like the argument they're making is just an overlay—they're very much a part of the value and fun of those movies—and this one feels like the argument is both incomplete and detracting from what the film wanted to do in the first place, and still winds up doing regardless, namely simply presenting one more offbeat, "cool"—and I don't know why I'm even putting that in quotes—hitman, whose self-conscious perfectionism is amusing in its fragility (maybe the funniest unstressed part of Fassbender's enormous meandering monologue is how it prompts you to say, aloud, "If your plan to murder somebody requires a resting heartrate under 60bpm, maybe it's not a very good plan"), but who, you know, still achieves pretty much all he sets out to do, in the time-honored tradition of all stoic bad-asses. He achieves more than stoic bad-asses usually do. Which is subversive and all, and indicative of how "subversive" is not at all a synonym for good: I like the very ending, but not the climax-if-you-want-to-call-it-that where the social commentary strikes back in an unsatisfying way that isn't even explained very well, or long enough to register amidst all the nonsense, despite the existence of that voiceover meaning that the script should at least be able to forestall even the slightest confusion as to motivations and rationales.
Ultimately, I'd be extremely curious to screen some fan edit that simply dispenses with Fassbender's narration entirely, just to see what it'd be like, and if you infer I think it'd be better (even if we lose the remarkable timbre of that great first sequence, which might not even hold up on a rewatch anyway), you'd be right. (And it's not even because Fassbender is bad at it: like him or lump him, Fassbender reminds one what a terribly good actor he is, hitting every beat and capturing every texture of a deliberate anti-character as he's represented both on the screen and on the soundtrack, with glimmers of humanity still present in his eyes sometimes, plus he manages the non-trivial feat of making it clear that somebody at least told him that this was supposed to have a comedic tinge, but, importantly, never letting the angular weirdo he's playing know that he's the joke.) The narration, anyway, is certainly not crucial to the nuts-and-bolts of the storytelling, which sort of goes to show where Fincher's heart lay in this, even if his head wasn't: it's a really good intentionally small and basic genre exercise that he's made here.
Sometimes it's a great one: it's immaculately edited with a jagged sense of precision, courtesy Kirk Baxter, and likewise immaculately sound edited—I guess I'd be remiss not to mention that the Killer must be the world's biggest Smiths fan, using them as his personal soundtrack because he finds Morrisey's depressed crooning relaxing—though the actual effect on us is anxiety-producing, thanks to Fincher continually cutting around the music on the Killer's headphones, from subjective song-in-your-ear mixing to the objective barely-on-the-soundtrack-noise you might might hear, but only if you were standing very close to him. It's even the sort of thing I usually hate (I've complained numerous times about David Leitch's mixed-up mixing for his needle drops) but, with its different parameters here, it works wonderfully on the nerves. And there's just a lot to like about going through the paces of a well-built assassin movie with someone on Fincher's level as our classically-minded guide, the shot-to-shot storytelling clear and morbidly compelling in its construction, in part because Fassbender's voiceover doesn't say shit, and so it's mostly up to the visuals to explain the details of the Killer's various plans, and we also know from experience that he is very prone to overthinking those details, sticking too close to his plans, and making mistakes. (It also throws in a very crowd-pleasing action sequence involving a long and drawn-out fight, that starts out seemingly well-planned, and devolves instantly into desperate improvisation, which is one of the best action sequences of this year for the way it interacts with the set alone.)
Above all it is a beautifully grotty little movie, and I can't think of any reason to deny my first impulse to call it the best-looking movie Fincher's made since his transition from film to digital lo those many years ago; it is the first, maybe, that actually has great cinematography, rather than just the correct application of a photographic style to a mood, usually if not always a funereal one (and lately he hasn't even been awesome at that, just look at Mank, sharing this film's DP, Erik Messerschmidt, and which is about a movie that Gregg Toland shot in 1941 yet winds up looking like someone somehow made a digitally-shot horror movie in 1963). As for The Killer, of all the miracles you'd think were impossible, it isn't even funereal: for all that Fincher is the single filmmaker whose name most leaps to mind for why everybody else's modern digital cinematography looks awful, this is a significant departure, and amounts to some of the best digital work that has no interest in pretending to be film, and actually demands you notice its digitalness, in what might be many years, very much a continuation of Michael Mann and his photographers' work on Collateral two decades ago, a work that Mann himself strayed from pretty much the instant they were done with that movie. (And The Killer is seemingly in all sorts of conversations with Mann's filmography, even if this is the only way it's actually conversing usefully or interestingly.) There's a digital fuzz to this that fits the tenor of the film, especially with the—not expected, but I have at least seen it done before—low-light shooting (I've seen complaints that the big centerpiece fight is "too dark," but I didn't find it so), which lets the nighttime locations hum with anomie and crime and mystery, the same way Collateral did. But there's also the daylight shooting, across settings as similar as Hispaniola and Florida, and as different from those as a wintry Midatlantic America, that makes them uncomfortably bright all in entirely distinct ways—and the daylights seem to get more painfully bright the longer the movie is on—bringing out more personality than the Killer would admit to, reflecting the feverish rage that the Killer would undoubtedly deny he feels.
And that's the thing: this is an expert genre exercise, made with care and thoughtfulness and, yeah, a noticeable sense of fun, too. Its outer shell is largely pointless and something of a constant distraction, and I can't imagine ever falling in love with this movie, unless—you never know—something finally clicks for me, and I suddenly "get" whatever deep thoughts Fincher and Walker were trying to communicate through what feels like purposefully shallow means; yet as a work of craft, there is a whole lot to love about The Killer, anyway.