The Killer Review: Michael Fassbender is a Fictional Surrogate for Director David Fincher in this Thriller
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Andrew Kevin Walker
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton, Charles Parnell
Duration: 118 mins
Available on: Netflix
Based on a French comic-book series of the same name, The Killer stars Michael Fassbender as a professional hitman in a fix. A botched job forces the ruthless (and unnamed) man to navigate the consequences of a rare failure. The system turns against him – suddenly, he is a “loose end” – and the steely-eyed man soon sets about avenging a brutal attack on a loved one. He painstakingly tracks them down. It’s a familiar premise: The hunter becomes the hunted, becomes the hunter. Think John Wick, James Bond and the entire cinematic legacy of the Brooding Assassin.
But calling The Killer an orthodox thriller is like calling Martin Scorsese a boring film-maker. It’s objectively untrue. Hidden within this film’s cliched heart is a self-reflexive – and strangely poignant – relationship with storytelling. At some level, it reminded me of Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019), where the movie itself ultimately breaks the fourth wall to ponder about its own significance and form. To understand the slow-burning subversions of The Killer, then, it’s important to look at it through the narrative lens of its director: David Fincher.
The Fincher Model
The film opens with the hitman staking out a hotel room in Paris. He shadows his latest target – an anonymous old billionaire – and waits. He isn’t your regular cold-blooded assassin, though. He waits a lot. He spends nights peering from the window of a dark and bare apartment (“Airbnb superhosts love their nanny-cams”). His musings are philosophical, narrated through a droll and weary voice-over – the kind one might associate with the serial-killing protagonist of You, had he turned professional. He remarks that he is effective because of a single mantra: “I don’t give a fuck”. He theorises about how the ‘few’ have always exploited the ‘many,’ and advises us to do whatever it takes to be the few. He does yoga, eats, watches, sleeps, contemplates and repeats. His days unfold like an endless logistical cycle. He speaks to his handler, then robotically disposes of the phone; he cleans up every sign of his presence.
It’s like he knows we’re watching him. So this illustrious contract killer stresses on the unseen tedium of his job, the routines and redundancies and days leading up to the task. He speaks of how mundanity is the toughest part of his craft. At some level, he sounds like an actor talking about how killing time between shots in a vanity van – with only a ticking brain and phone for company – is the actual challenge of an outwardly glamorous profession. He goes on about how his lack of empathy – his deep focus despite all the monotony – benefits his expertise. He’s clearly worked, and pondered, long enough to become a master of high-pressure nothingness. There’s a sexual tension between the man and his loneliness.
At this point, this hitman is very much a David Fincher character. He symbolizes the other side of Mindhunter, Fincher’s long-form psychological sweep based on the three detectives that pioneered the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. The two-season series followed these cops in their pursuit of an elusive serial killer. But it was the procedural nature of the narrative – the bureaucratic slog, the stoic backroom-ness, the data-collecting legwork, the days of zero activity – that distinguished it from the modern crime drama. The red-tape anxieties became the language of a show that stayed rooted in the unsexy moments of a groundbreaking quest.
In other words, the idle mind is Fincher’s workshop. So our assassin in The Killer is the sort of invisible man those mindhunters might have chased – he, too, wants us to be under no illusion about the globe-trotting spy life. It’s not as cool as it looks. His existence suggests that what these movies don’t show us – the ordinary stillness before or after the extraordinary action – is what determines the skills of these people. We see the Bonds and Bournes doing or feeling only the filmable things, but what do they think about while eating, walking or standing at the immigration counter? Does this in-between life not affect their missions? Do they not exist outside of the emotional continuity of the exciting moments?
Michael Fassbender as a Fictional Surrogate
The killer’s voice-over also suggests that he has a chip on his shoulder. He’s been around; he knows a thing or two about the world he manipulates. He even listens to The Smiths, the ‘other’ Manchester band known for its rejection of Eighties’ synth-pop and its reclamation of independent music. It’s not a stretch to imagine that this Fassbender-shaped man is a fictional surrogate for Fincher himself, an American auteur who always seems to be operating in – and speaking from – a cold and elevated space of artistry. His film-making is sometimes accused of being clinical, and nearly too elite to be in sync with the employers of his talent. In this context, it’s almost enjoyable to hear the hitman remind himself of rules like “forbid empathy” and “anticipate, don’t improvise”.
So when the job goes wrong and he embarks on a seemingly familiar tale of retribution, it’s tempting to assume that the film collapses into the very template it claimed to be better than. But that’s not the case. It’s the character that’s struggling to retain his identity in the face of conventional – and more universal – players. He isn’t the vintage machine he thought he was. By extension, it’s Fincher confessing that it’s hard to sustain his old-school stillness in the face of new-age genre slickness. It’s difficult not to conform. But it’s also him admitting that compromising is not the same as succumbing. That, if anything, a bit of regularity might be the way forward. Some balance doesn’t hurt. In many ways, this reluctant vulnerability of the protagonist reflects the film-maker’s conflict about sticking to his distinct vision of a genre.
Push and Pull Between Art and Ambition
The rest of The Killer – its seamless visual aesthetic, the dread-filled score, the episodic rhythm – echoes this oddly meta coming-of-age arc. The man soon finds himself globe-trotting like his mainstream counterparts, but he continues to use his own dry and calculated methods: Shooting an affable guy when we least expect it, stapling a man’s chest, confronting a target in a gourmet restaurant, using cheap tools from Amazon to circumvent cutting-edge security systems. There’s a constant push and pull between who he is and the killer that pop culture perceives him to be.
As the film progresses, he cannot stop himself from feeling a tinge of something – empathy, pity, mercy, curiosity – despite his alt-commercial style.
At one point, he engages in brutal combat at a Florida condo, a scene that looks straight out of a John Wick or Mission Impossible franchise. He can’t help but look derivative. But later on, he breaks into a penthouse only to prove that he can. He uses words here, not weapons. It feels like his – as well as the film-maker’s – way of toeing the line. This is as far as the man is willing to push. This is as hard as he can change. It’s almost as if he has pummeled his way to the top of the food chain – a wealthy client, employer or studio head – to make a statement: “I might be a killer, but I’m also human. I can be stubborn and detached, but I can also do cool tropes. I’m a master of the Many, but I see the Few.”
That’s why this film is as tender as it is violent. It finds the will to invoke a love story between the in-betweens and the milestones; the personal and the generic; the existing and the doing; the assassin and his creed. But most of all, it becomes a tragic romance between the artist and his refined ambition.