We have been through this world many times. The lone assassin, meticulous in his skills, who lives by a strict code. A job gone wrong leading to betrayal by former confidants and a quest to prevent himself from becoming a target. What’s old may not be new again, but David Fincher’s latest “The Killer” exists as a fairly riveting watch.
Re-teaming with his “Se7en” screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (adapting the French graphic novel series of the same name), Fincher creates an almost eerie cinematic ride-along with the unnamed hitman of the title (Michael Fassbender).
After making a mess of a contract , the killer and his underwritten girlfriend (Sophie Charlotte) become targets leading our titular hitman on a mission to hunt down the people coming for him. Traveling from New Orleans, to Chicago (and other cities), Fincher and Walker play with the over-used assassin movie cliches. There is the well-written voiceover where Fassbender’s killer lays down the rules he lives by to stay out of jail and survive. While controlling his heart rate through yoga and patient breathing, most times it is the songs of The Smiths that keep him focused as the minutes tick by.
For the film’s first chapter, Fincher focuses on the monotony of the wait. As Fassbender narrates, (sharing the code he lives by), he sleeps, he stretches, he eats McDonald’s, and he watches. Until his mark shows up, every day is like the one before it. “This is the job.” At first, the sequence is quite interesting and certainly defines the character, until it goes on much too long. Once the meticulously planned hit goes the wrong way and the film mercifully shifts to the next chapter, the screenplay has overdone its opening to the point of self-parody. After informing the audience of his professional regulations, the killer breaks his own rules, as he risks exposure to get those who would come to kill him.
While there are a few cliched dialogues on life and death, I hoped to say there is more depth to the film, but there isn’t. Make no mistake, the minimalism doesn’t work against the film. “The Killer” is a series of set pieces, putting Fassbender and actors such as Arliss Howard and Tilda Swinton in strong scenes together where each one gets a chance to show their acting mettle. The moment between Swinton and Fassbender is the best in the film. It is an unbearably tense conversation, as the two actors square off in a fancy restaurant booth while an air of death surrounds their every word, and the killer is a man of few.
The character chooses his words wisely. With minimal dialogue, when he speaks, he is to the point. No bullshit or suffering of fools. Fassbender’s piercing blue eyes give a cold and dangerous stare while his carefully chosen words hit sharp, like a bullet you don’t see coming. In his design and in Michael Fassbender’s focused performance, this killer draws comparison to James Caan’s “Frank” in Michael Mann’s “Thief”, another direct and dangerous character.
Fincher’s pacing is meticulous and the film’s aura is dour, but he assures some tense and exciting moments. There is a brutal hand to hand fight with one of the men hired to kill Fassbender’s character. The two go at it inside the man’s home, using (and being thrown into) everything that surrounds them. Masterfully choreographed and just a bit over the top, the scene is one of the most intense action moments of the director’s career and an example of the darkly absurdist manner Fincher and Walker present the killer’s predicaments. This isn’t the serious world of Melville’s “Le Samourai” or even Anton Corbijn’s “The Assassin”, but an almost surreal journey with a man who walks hand in hand with death.
When David Fincher is on his game, the man can direct the hell out of a motion picture. The filmmaker is in fine form, guiding this minimalist thriller with precise pacing and his trademark use of lighting and frame. Erik Messerschmidt’s camera achieves a dark hued visual tone that fuels the film’s modern noir vibe, while the score (from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) heightens the tension.
This is not the deadly serious David Fincher fans expect. There is a humor to the film; askew and pitch black to be sure, but it is there. The director gleefully embraces the story’s cliches and shoots for something more uncomplicated. In a twisted way, this is Fincher having fun.
Ultimately, “The Killer” doesn’t add up to much, but being this well crafted, it sure is an interesting experience. I am not always enamored with Fincher’s films, and believe he has been lackluster over the past decade or more, but due to his dedication to the material and his love of the cinematic craft, I shall continue to see his work. While imperfect and occasionally hollow, this is David Fincher’s best since 2007’s “Zodiac”.
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton, Charles Parnell, Arliss Howard
R, 118 Minutes, Archaia Entertainment/Boom! Studios/Netflix