Before you read anything else, consider this: A David Fincher film is a David Fincher film is a David Fincher film. You already know what this means: bravura expositions, hues of blue, steely control of every frame, pessimism, and most of all, conflict and discomfort (his own words). Then there is the tense world-building from the original soundtrack of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who’ve supplied Fincher with throbbing soundscapes for 15 years.
In all the above aspects, The Killer is as traditional a David Fincher film as can be. Adapted from a graphic novel by Frenchmen Alexis “Matz” Nolent and spearheaded by a superbly dispassionate performance by Michael Fassbender, it is an episodic tale of a nameless assassin who endeavors to hunt down his employer’s staff and clients after they maimed his girlfriend in retribution for a botched job of his. Endless cycles of carnage and resentment ensue.
The Killer is also curiously economical. Clocking in at 108 minutes, Fincher’s shortest feature ever, it consists of merely half a dozen vignettes and is powered by Fassbender’s stream-of-consciousness inner monologues. The prologue and epilogue are sparse, too, primarily serving the formal purpose of opening and wrapping up the chapter in the life of. Apart from the assassin’s morbidly solipsistic pursuit of those he finds culpable of his predicament, not much happens. That is, I would argue, precisely the point of the film; after all, Fincher is the least naïve of any filmmaker in business today, and the film is aesthetically, formally, and thematically watertight. The sparsity of elements is a design feature, not a flaw.
However, the calculated paucity of emotion and context and some cunning narrative misdirection make this fine feature horribly open to misinterpretation. Despite the majority of early festival circuit reviews being positive, quite a few have commented on the film being “insufficiently grandiose”, “not a masterpiece”, or “empty”. The first two negative criticisms a sensible person shouldn’t care for, as it is no author’s obligation to deliver only the type of work “expected” of them (quite to the contrary). The third criticism I take issue with as it’s fairly evident that some have failed to observe what The Killer is actually about. Hint: it’s not organized crime. Or at least not the kind you’d think.
At a minimum, there are two reviews to be written about The Killer (really four, but two will suffice for now). While the formal elements, including genre and the engagement factor, remain the same across the adventures of (con)text, the two dominant readings, running in parallel, reveal, at turns, hilarious and devastating depths to the story. It would be best to separate and present them in succession.
First, there is the thriller, Fincher’s genre of choice, about a hitman-for-hire fed up with the mechanics of his trade. In a remarkable opening scene, the assassin is on a lengthy stakeout in a vacant building in Paris, practicing self-control while setting the stage for a sniper hit on some shady statesman. “It’s amazing how physically exhausting it is to do nothing,” is the first line of a mammoth voiceover, in which the hired gun repeats the many tenets of his line of work methodically but never dully.
Days go by as he meditates, stretches, pops out to feed himself at a McDonald’s, and obsessively listens to the Smiths (a great choice for hapless emotional stumps). All the way, Fassbender is spellbinding as a likely sociopath, hard as an icicle regarding life yet vigorously ruminating over minutiae as if his job was… meaningful. “I don’t. Give. A. Fuck.” is one of the last lines of his intro, as he checks his pulse to ensure an ideal rate prior to taking the hit. Across the street, the target enters a lavish penthouse. He casually introduces himself to a prostitute, reminding us there seem to be no innocents on either end of the gun. Everything is aligned perfectly.
And then, the killer fucks the job up. It throws him off, lighting the fuse for a globe-trotting chase to save his life and destroy his employers. Methods will be questioned, focus will be tested, and emotions will play a large part in what’s to come, both for the hitman and his adversaries. It is clear from the outset that the film’s end will entail a thorough cleanup, but on which side, how, and why?
In this straightforward revenge flick, Fincher is greatly aided by many of his most trusted collaborators: Andrew Kevin Walker’s sardonic script (Se7en), Erik Messerschmidt’s disquieting cinematography (Mank, Gone Girl), and Kirk Baxter’s razor-sharp editing (The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and more) all tightly weave the Fincherean aesthetic that is as much of a plotting device and affective spiel as it is the mere outlook of the film. I’ve mentioned Reznor and Ross, who enhance every shot and feeling with an ominous, frenetic score.
Fincher draws on the strengths of his past work heavily, too. There is the inner rationalization of atrocities from Gone Girl, the relentless nihilism of Se7en, the sardonic Weltschmerz of Fight Club, and the drab procedural of Zodiac. Admittedly, The Killer is as far-removed from Mank, Fincher’s emotional 2020 biographical drama written by his late father, Jack, as it can be, but that’s obvious. However, it may not be obvious that, at its core, the film, has way more to do with The Social Network than any other Fincher film. Read on for a second review.
If The Killer works well as a macabre thriller, as satire of the corporate (tech) world and one’s precarious position within it, it is nothing short of fascinating. Fassbender is spectacular as a dry, soulless worker, a nameless entity whose existence is nothing more than his job and a series of robotic repetitions of tasks necessary to get it done. His attempts at entertainment entail listening to the Smiths, the most misanthropic band on Earth, and petty observations of human interactions reduced to daily tedium (“No one really wants to interact with a German tourist,” he explains the inspiration behind his hideous normcore outfit, through which he tries to blend in).
To maintain his sanity while grinding away, he practices mindfulness to alleviate stress and increase focus and operates solely on the basis of motivational mantras straight out of a Fortune 500 top-floor suite (“Weakness is vulnerability”, “forbid empathy”, and so on). What we witness is essentially a shell of a man conditioned to “stay focused” so as to be “successful” in what he does. He is only as good as his last job. His survival (in the business) is contingent on whether he delivers. His name, private life (assuming he has any), and personality all live and die with his work. Surely enough, he sleeps on the job, eats fast food at his “desk” (while working), and doesn’t even have a home. Small wonder we know the man simply as “the killer” – all he ever ought to do is hit his next target.
If you think this reading of The Killer might be a stretch, know that the references to tech startups and corporates are overt, plentiful, and uproarious. For his first job, the murderous go-getter squats at a WeWork office, of all places. His mindfulness methods are copy-pasted from business book bestsellers, and his rhetoric is no different from those of white-collar hotshots. (“Each and every step of the way, ask yourself ‘what’s in it for me?’”) In some of the film’s funnier sequences, the killer uses gadgets like Amazon Prime delivery and Google Maps to outmaneuver his opponents while rambling about tech savviness being the key to success.
Then there’s Tilda Swinton in a fantastic, if too brief, turn as simply “The Expert”. Echoing some of her award-winning performance in Michael Clayton, she’s a consultant-level figure with all the answers upfront and planning for every contingency. The Expert scolds the killer for his miss and emotional reaction to it over an extravagant dinner. This darkly comical scene will remind many of an uncomfortable conversation they have had with their manager. Fassbender and Swinton are in on the joke, and their brief exchange brims with rivalry and resentment typically found within open-space “families”.
Finally, the film’s lofty facetious parable comes together seamlessly once you find out who the big bad, the “top dog” making orders, is. Even the killer lets you in on the joke in one final voiceover, but I won’t spoil what he says. Fincher is well-versed in very dark and even more lowkey humor. Still, in The Killer, his creative team really outdoes itself with this long, physically and emotionally exhausting antic about how one cannot be or stay human(e) in the ruthless reality of business.
If you read this as an allegory of Silicon Valley or the London Stock Exchange, any perceived tediousness within the killer’s focus or scope of reference will make perfect sense. Working in the corporate environment means grinding endlessly and losing sight of the humanity within you. The story and the spaces within the film are impersonal and sparse because the protagonist moves through his empty life with blinders on. He doesn’t know anything that isn’t his job (at least up to a point).
Why, then, would Fincher go the lengths of making a film about a literal murderer if it’s really a satire of our pathetic little existence within neoliberalism? Well, he’s already made The Social Network, a film about the perils of neoliberal corporatism, and a flawless one at that. This time, in a tale that is plenty more personal than the birth of Facebook and America’s obsession with status, we get to see what’s on the nameless end of the meat-grinding stick: the lives of those who are unwittingly enabling the entrepreneurs to get to one billion dollars. The rest is also fairly simple: murder sells, and thrillers are “sexy” onscreen, allowing for kinetic shots, adrenaline rushes, and neurotic withdrawals between scenes. Realizations about our reality hit much harder when sifted through the lens of the improbable and heinous. Personally, I was blown away by the framework used to bring the point home.
Of all the things I enjoyed about The Killer, perhaps my favorite was seeing that Fincher has (possibly) turned to his namesake, the late David Foster Wallace, for inspiration. The hitman’s thoughts on life, the universe, and everything sound suspiciously like an extension of the wastoid Chris Fogle’s 100-page monologue from The Pale King, in which he describes the roadmap from his childhood to his present-day work at the IRS.
Like Fogle, the killer sees his world through his work, as he knows no better. However, unlike Foster Wallace’s meek earthling, Fincher’s protagonist does whatever he does only for himself, not for any benefit of humanity. That way, he is much more attuned to the callous and cynical world of discomfort and conflict that, Fincher reminds us, can bring only death and destruction.