The Killer: David Fincher’s normcore assassin unnerves and entertains

Michael Fassbender stars as a hitman who becomes a target himself after a job gone wrong in Fincher’s intriguing, freshly-staged procedural.

7 September 2023

By Nicolas Rapold

The Killer (2023)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Venice International Film Festival 

It’s an age-old question: what, really, is the deal with David Fincher and serial killers? Whether the murders are for pleasure or per contract, these repeat offenders seem to speak to the exacting filmmaker, whose idea of a good time after Mank’s resynthesised old Hollywood is… a hitman film. But The Killer intrigues as a procedural run amok, starring Michael Fassbender as a normcore assassin on a job that goes pear-shaped, leading him to retrace his steps and contacts. Modulated by Fassbender’s peculiar performance – highly restrained but not chilly, and definitely not cool cool – its superlative action plots out a double-edged study of professional independence that’s notable even alongside cinema’s gallery of criminal-with-a-code portraits.

The killer – his many aliases name-check 1970s TV characters – begins his Paris assignment as normal: waiting in secret for his target. He keeps his hideaway, an empty office floor, as clean as possible, sitting in daily vigil for the soon-to-be-dead to appear in the apartment across the street. It’s a film born in a grey chamber of total control (though he does go out for McDonald’s and do stretches). But our man in Paris also monologues incessantly in a telling voiceover that’s fussy, sometimes amusing, and a little over-insistent about the job’s tough requirements: “Fight empathy… Fight only the battle you’re paid to fight” and other assassin affirmations.

The voiceover is worth spotlighting because it tips the film’s positioning of the killer, which is not the mythologising one might expect, whether of the pre- or post-ironic variety (neither Le Samourai, 1967 nor Grosse Pointe Blank, 1997). There’s something brittle here, a hollow spot in his foundations, and part of the film is his sussing this out. But when the shooting goes awry, he’s busy being the consummate pro, fleeing and destroying evidence. And when he himself becomes a target (it’s not exactly a “sorry, my bad” profession), he keeps doing what he knows best, tracking down concerned parties. But this isn’t a story about cleaning up a mess – he’s spurred on by an injury to someone close to him.

It’s important to keep things a little vague here, because Fincher builds up a terrific velocity following the nameless killer on his methodical path of fact-finding and score-settling. It resembles retribution but it’s fundamentally a journey into uncharted territory for him. It’s also all crisply and freshly staged by Fincher, who maps out the ins and outs of the urban and suburban locations, with the killer arming himself through Amazon and big-box stores. For the director, it’s a work of theme and variations, which doesn’t feel burdened by statements on modernity; one highlight is an old-fashioned knock-down, drag-out fight in someone’s Florida home that rivals bone-crunching melees in Haywire (2011) or Darker Than Amber (1970). (The sequences have an overture of sorts in the dizzyingly fast opening credits, which page through murder techniques with each name like an amphetamine-fuelled detective show.)

One thing we do learn about Fassbender’s character is that his earbuds pipe in a steady stream of Smiths songs (‘How Soon Is Now,’ ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,’ ‘This Charming Man’). This is, granted, a little cute, though it plays less as a joke or creepy detail than as part of an in-the-flow work routine. But read a little deeply, it does suggest a compartmentalisation of emotion, and not some doomed-romantic wit lurking beneath the mercenary surface. (Men will literally listen to the Smiths and kill people rather than enter therapy, to paraphrase a meme?) His is also not the only way to be as an assassin: there’s a fascinating mirroring moment when he comes face to face with another, perhaps better-adjusted contract killer (played by Tilda Swinton, who starred in Jim Jarmusch’s 2009 Zen-circling hitman film The Limits of Control).

Not that Fincher and Fassbender invite much poking around for backstory or gleaning from the character. He is, in the final equation, an independent contractor, moving with seeming frictionless ease from country to country, but his experience in Paris renders him instantly disposable to the powers that be. Therein lies the film’s pricking of cog-in-capitalism conundrums (which is why the voiceover might evoke Fight Club (1999) for some). The killer’s profitable lifestyle – clean, cruel, free of empathy (fight it!) – evokes an airtight independence, confirming his own worth with every life he disinterestedly takes. It’s not revolutionary to suggest that this might be an illusion, and a recipe for society’s mutual assured destruction, but The Killer’s brand of false consciousness manages to entertain and unsettle at the same unnerving time.

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