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In many ways, “The Killer” is exactly what you’d expect from a David Fincher movie centered on a hired assassin: a detail-rich procedural about what a hitman is forced to do as his calculated world implodes. And by telling this story of a deadly perfectionist who repeats phrases like "Forbid Empathy" to keep himself centered, Fincher leans into his reputation as a precise—almost obsessive—filmmaker. "The Killer" may be based on a graphic novel by Alexis “Matz” Nolent, but it feels like Fincher's most personal film to date.
Of course, it helps to have a leading man who’s proven himself adept at playing soulless monsters before and there are elements of David from “Prometheus” in what Michael Fassbender brings to Fincher's nameless protagonist. “The Killer” opens with a lengthy voiceover scene as we watch this assassin on a multi-day stakeout in Paris. He keeps an eye on the café below, dips out to McDonald's for protein, and listens to The Smiths on repeat (about a dozen songs from the landmark band give the film an incredible soundtrack and add to its deadpan humor). But he generally tries to blend in, noting that he picked his disguise as a German tourist because most French people avoid German tourists. In this character-defining prologue, Fincher and writer Andrew Kevin Walker (“Seven”) set the pace that nothing is rushed. It’s a deliberate peek into the mind of a murderer, someone who justifies his actions by noting how many people are born and die each day—anything he does is just a drop in a massive bucket.
After a few days in Paris, The Killer’s target finally appears in the penthouse across the street. And then something happens that never has happened to this film’s “hero”—he misses, hitting an innocent bystander instead of the intended victim. He immediately knows what this means and races home to the Dominican Republic to find his partner clinging to life. The clean-up crew has already come for both of them. It’s here where The Killer essentially breaks his own rules. He has stocked storage units in multiple cities and enough money in foreign accounts to never be seen again. He could run. But the man who has told himself never to improvise and always to keep things from getting personal goes in the other direction, trying to burn those who came into his house and those who hired them. Arliss Howard, Charles Parnell, and Tilda Swinton co-star, but this is basically a one-man show, the tale of an icy assassin forced to get a little hot.
One can sense Fincher's passion for this project in every frame as he returns to themes that have long interested him: obsession, perfectionism, and power. It helps a great deal that he brings along several of his most accomplished collaborators, including cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (“Gone Girl”), editor Kirk Baxter (“The Social Network”), and even Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross to handle the score. On a technical level, “The Killer” hums like few films of its type in recent years just because of the pedigree of the team behind it. One senses they all have the same perfectionism as the notoriously detailed filmmaker, and this is the kind of production that rewards that sense of detail. It’s not a film that should be rough around the edges—it succeeds because it’s as finely tuned as one of The Killer’s jobs.
Of course, some will question why we're watching an amoral monster try to save himself, and it’s worth noting that Fincher and Walker don’t shy away from this. I kept expecting “The Killer” to try and soften its leading man, but there’s no escaping that he is a cold-blooded murderer. When he snapped one victim's neck, I heard a gasp in my film festival audience, like they expected mercy. That’s not an item in this character’s go-bag, and his completely cynical and procedural approach to murder will turn some people off. This is not a story of redemption but precision; it's what happens when one of the most precise people in the world makes a mistake. Fincher and Walker rush the final act, especially the shortest epilogue ever, but that complaint may fade on second viewing as I believe it fits the no-nonsense approach of the title character.
All of this might make “The Killer” sound like a drag, but it’s worth noting that it’s actually one of Fincher's funniest films. There’s a phenomenal running bit about the assassin’s fake names. And there's a cavalcade of familiar brands like Starbucks, Amazon, WeWork, and even Wordle, a comment on a world that’s commodified and cold enough to allow a killer to slide through it unseen because people are too distracted by something else. He counts on that to do his job.
Finally, there’s the undeniable Fincher-ness of “The Killer.” One could see it as a filmmaker playing his greatest hits with his best bandmates again, but there’s something deeper at play here. This isn’t just the work of an artist repeating himself; it’s the work of one reworking his themes and obsessions into something brave and new. It ultimately asks if people like The Killer can shut the world out to get the job done. And, by extension, if a master like David Fincher can too.
This review was filed from the Chicago premiere at the 2023 Chicago International Film Festival. "The Killer" opens on October 27th in theaters and will be on Netflix on November 10th.
Michael Fassbender as The Killer
Arliss Howard as The Client - Claybourne
Charles Parnell as The Lawyer - Hodges
Gabriel Polanco as Leo
Kerry O'Malley as Dolores
Emiliano Pernia as Marcus
Sala Baker as The Brute
Sophie Charlotte as Magdala
Tilda Swinton as The Expert
Monique Ganderton as The Dominatrix
Kellan Rhude as Business Man