Film Review – The Killer
“Do not improvise. Stick to the plan. Forbid empathy. Trust no one. Breathe.” These sayings are repeated again and again by the main character of The Killer (2023). This unnamed assassin goes by these rules like self-help mottos, using them as a guide to be as efficient and relentless as possible. It provides a look into his mindset – how he can operate with no feeling or emotional ties. He does not belong to any political group, he represents no country – he merely does the job he is paid to do, and does so with cold blooded technique. How is he so good at what he does? He tells us plainly: “I don’t give a f#&k.”
While the film is an adaption of the graphic novel by Alexis Nolent and Luc Jacamon, it can also be viewed as a continuation of director David Fincher’s narrative obsessions. Teaming back up with Se7en (1995) screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, Fincher explores his main character with hyper focus. Fincher has a reputation for being a very precise filmmaker, willing to go on endless takes to get the exact shot or dramatic effect he wants. The level of commitment can be seen in The Killer (Michael Fassbender). Make no mistake about it – this is not a story about a likeable person. The Killer is an unwavering sociopath. But what makes his story so compelling is the process – the step-by-step actions he goes through to claim his next target.
I assume that is the element that drew Fincher to this material, and he directs the film as such. Instead of a fast paced, action extravaganza, The Killer is a slow, methodical burn. If anything, the day-to-day life of an assassin is filled with boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. The first act has The Killer staking out a mark in Paris, going days on end waiting for the right opportunity to strike. The hours pass with mundanity, allowing The Killer to even stop by McDonalds to grab a quick snack. All throughout, he provides us with narration, providing insight to his methods. However, the rigidity he relies so heavily upon is put to the test when the mission goes sideways, leaving him on the run and having to work on the fly.
On paper, the narrative takes on a very familiar progression: The professional hit man gets caught in a conspiracy and must find out who is responsible. But under Fincher’s lead, this iteration takes on a sleek and glossy aesthetic. This is a study in behavior, of how one person operates in a way outsiders couldn’t understand. This is all handled by several returning Fincher collaborators, from cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, production designer Donald Graham Burt, editor Kirk Baxter, and music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The result is a world that feels modern and old fashioned at the same time. Night scenes are shot with hard shadows and soft lights, giving the mood of a classic noir. Simultaneously, technology is a central component, as The Killer uses all kinds of gadgets to avoid detection. People are so busy looking at their phones that they don’t see the danger coming before it’s too late. In one of the funnier bits, The Killer strolls past a security guard, saying in his head “Good luck with Wordle.”
It’s been a minute since we’ve seen Michael Fassbender (his last credited film was Dark Phoenix, which came out four years ago). It’s a welcome return, as Fassbender reminds us of his talents as a performer. As The Killer, Fassbender is lean, calculating, and scary. Although other notable actors appear (including Tilda Swinton), Fassbender is essentially running a one man show here. His voice is calm and assured, and he wears a smartwatch to keep track of his heartbeat. Narration can sometimes be a burden for a movie, providing unnecessary information about the plot or characters. In this case, it works as a reflection of The Killer’s persona. There’s an interesting dynamic between what he says to us, and what we are actually seeing on screen. He constantly talks about not getting attached, about sticking to the job and never letting your emotions get in the way. However, the things he does, the people he tracks down, and the decisions he makes all contradict that notion.
Fassbender rightfully plays the character as difficult to pin down. The gears are always spinning in his head, even though he is a killing machine. Many people might be turned off by this aspect – that The Killer lacks any humanity and only exists to be a monster. During one sequence, The Killer executes a victim with such suddenness and blunt force violence that I actually gasped out loud. While I understand that many wouldn’t want to follow the exploits of an assassin that lacks remorse, it’s hard to argue that the filmmaking and performances are not captivating. There is such craft on display that I was hooked just to see how things would play out. The Killer exists in a universe populated by wolves, where people are betrayed by those closest to them. The most suspenseful interactions feature characters trying to wiggle their way out of The Killer’s grasp, even though their pleads for mercy fall on deaf ears. A moral compass is not a requirement for an interesting character, and The Killer is a fine example of this.
Although The Killer isn’t as expansive as say, The Social Network (2010), Zodiac (2007), or Fight Club (1999), when it comes to themes of power, control, and attention to detail, this might be the closest thing David Fincher has come to giving us a “personal” film. It’s tense, jolting, and often times very funny. Hopefully this will be the first of many team ups between Fincher and Fassbender, as the two seem to click together with pitch perfect clarity. When you have artists like these working at the top of their skillset, it’s easy to follow them wherever they want to go.