'The Killer': David Fincher Goes Back to His Roots in Masterful Thriller
From the opening title sequence of David Fincher's latest film, The Killer, it appears that we are in for something similar to his early work, like Se7en or Fight Club. It is an aggressive intro, with an eye-catching visual flair and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's booming score, which particularly recalls the former's highly memorable opening credits. The opening credits seem to promise that this will be a high-octane action film about a hit man wrapped in the cool, stylish visuals that we have come to expect from Fincher. But what follows these opening credits manages to subvert expectations, as it is much more meticulous than one would expect, and functions more as a character study as opposed to a big, violent action film. However, Fincher still manages to deliver the goods, as it does give the people what they want in certain ways, but it is HOW he goes about it that is sure to catch most viewers off-guard. In essence, this is classic Fincher, with its nihilistic bent, detailed direction, and darker sensibilities. But Fincher wisely refrains from playing the hits, and instead offers up a reflective work that marries the strengths of his early work with the type of filmmaker he is today.
The film centers on a man known only as The Killer (Michael Fassbender), an assassin who, after a hit gone wrong, finds himself in the middle of an international manhunt. We spend the entire film with The Killer, as we see his entire process as he travels to various cities in order to seek retribution, and the extreme lengths he goes to in order to tie up as many loose ends as he can.
What fascinates me the most about this film is that it seems to play into a recent trend of auteur directors who got their start in the late 20th century looking back at their work and questioning their craft and its impact. We've seen this with Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer, Wes Anderson's Asteroid City, and Steven Spielberg's The Fabelmans. Each of these films wrestle with similar concepts, but are otherwise different from each other, and play to the strengths and public perception of their directors and their films. With The Killer, Fincher revisits the style and gritty subject matter he cut his teeth on as a young filmmaker, but filters it through the lens of who he has become since then. So much of the film's craftsmanship feels closer to his more recent work, but the film's plot is more in line with his early work. This dichotomy is what drives the film, and makes it such an intriguing text. It helps that it is a clever thriller in its own right, but it is done solely on Fincher's own terms, which makes it all the more exciting.
This film sees Fincher re-teaming with Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote the screenplay for Se7en and did uncredited re-writes on The Game and Fight Club. This further fuels the possibility that this would be more in line with Fincher's early work, but Walker and Fincher are clearly on the same page with this film, as they both subvert the expectations we have of them. Walker does weave a tight narrative, adapted quite skillfully from the French graphic novel series of the same name, but it isn't quite as brutal as his better known work. He doesn't shy away from including some harshness, both in terms of the film's violence and the reality of the situations that The Killer finds himself in. There are several voiceovers throughout, which show The Killer's rationale and code he has for himself. These not only put us in his head, but they also make the life of an assassin seem less cool, and more like an ordinary job. The mundanity of his existence is such a nice change of pace from what we usually see in films about hit men, and the film's episodic structure only highlights this, while also playing into ideas about the futility of violence. Not to mention that the dialogue is pretty sharp and much funnier than one might expect. This is a rather tight script, and has me hoping that Fincher and Walker will collaborate again in the future.
Fincher's direction is unsurprisingly strong, as he is a consistently great filmmaker. He is so precise and has a clear vision for every project he takes on, and this film is no exception. Fincher strikes a balance with this film that feels so quintessentially him, as it has a sardonic wit about it that is perfectly in line with his entire filmography. Fincher knows how to direct action and suspense better than the majority of his peers, but he is somewhat withholding of this, opting for quick bursts of violence and misdirections as opposed to going headlong into it. He keeps the viewer on their toes, as things don't always go the way you think they will, and while there is a more methodical nature to the way the plot unfolds, there is a tension that simmers beneath most of the film. Fincher presents this film so matter-of-factly that removes any glamour or sensationalism from what we are seeing on screen, and that makes it all the more effective. The violence is even more jarring as a result, and Fincher's distinct lens makes the film as a whole feel so fresh and enthralling. This is some of his best work behind the camera, and feels like a culminating moment of his entire career.
One of the most fruitful collaborations of Fincher's career, has to be between him and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Reznor and Ross have become two of the best composers in cinema over the past decade or so, and the scores they've made for Fincher's other features are among some of their finest work. With The Killer, their score is a bit more low-key, with the exception of the opening title sequence. But while it may not be as upfront as some of their other works, it fits the film like a glove. Granted, their score takes a backseat to numerous songs by The Smiths that show up all throughout the film, but it is still quite solid. The Smiths needledrops are also quite effective, and are a nice touch that adds to the specificity of both Fincher's direction and the character of The Killer. The use of music in general in the film is one of its strongest assets, even if is deployed in an unexpected way.
Michael Fassbender is an actor who I have greatly admired since I first saw him in Inglourious Basterds back in 2009. He has had some ups and downs over his career, as he is consistently good, but the projects he attaches himself to are kind of hit or miss. The Killer is his first film role since 2019's X-Men: Dark Phoenix, and makes for a welcome return for him. Fassbender is excellent at portraying characters with icy, stoic demeanors, and this film capitalizes on it brilliantly. Fassbender is so calibrated throughout the entire film, and his quietness gives off an air of mystery that makes him all the more entrancing. This is quite possibly his best performance since his Oscar nominated turn in Steve Jobs, and it makes for a pretty great comeback vehicle for him as well. There is such a strong methodology to the character he plays here, but he makes it look so natural and effortless. This is a performance that I hope doesn't get overlooked, as it is such strong work from Fassbender, and a reminder of what he is truly capable of.
The entirety of the film is spent with Fassbender, but the supporting players who he encounters are all doing phenomenal work. This is one of those films where even the smallest role pops, and the fact that the cast itself is a bit small only accentuates each actor's contributions. Charles Parnell is so good in this film, and has the right amount of gravitas needed for his role of The Lawyer. He really only shows up for one scene, but it is a major highlight of the film largely because of him and the way he plays off of Fassbender. Arliss Howard is also quite good as a wealthy client of The Killer. Howard captures this specific brand of arrogance we tend to see in people who are inordinately rich, and the way his entire persona shifts when he is around The Killer is quite masterfully handled. The most memorable performance of the film (save for Fassbender) comes from Tilda Swinton, who plays a fellow assassin. Much like Parnell, she only really shows up for one scene, but she certainly makes it count. She has a fantastic monologue, and has a cool, yet intense energy that complements Fassbender perfectly. It's easy to write off as a glorified cameo considering that she isn't in that much of the film, but Swinton absolutely knocks it out of the park, and is easily one of the best supporting performances I've seen all year.
In many ways, The Killer is a return to the gritty tales of murder and violence of Fincher's early days, but it is also much more than that, as it acts against audience expectations to create something much more fascinating than him just re-hashing the things that made him a major filmmaker. It stays truer to the filmmaker that he has become, while also featuring small remnants from that early period, and combines them to make a film that is excellently made and so precise in every way. This is a true gem in Fincher's filmography, and is so gripping from start to finish. It might surprise some viewers with how it zigs where they think it will zag, but it is a rewarding effort that stands among the best of the year, and re-asserts Fincher as a master of his craft.
The Killer is now playing in select theaters and premieres on Netflix November 10th.