The Killer

David Fincher and Michael Fassbender are a match made in thriller heaven in this stripped back, sleek and sardonic hitman flick.
Sarah Ward
Published on October 26, 2023


UPDATE, Friday, November 10: The Killer screens in select cinemas from Thursday, October 26, and streams via Netflix from Friday, November 10.


A methodical opening credits sequence that's all about the finer points, as seen in slivers and snippets, set to industrial strains that can only stem from Trent Reznor, with David Fincher and Andrew Kevin Walker's names adorning the frame, for a film about a murderer being chased. In 1995, Se7en began with that carefully and commandingly spliced-together mix — and magnificently. Fincher and Walker now reteam for the first time since for The Killer, another instantly gripping thriller that starts in the same fashion. It also unfurls as a cat-and-mouse game with a body count, while sporting an exceptional cast and splashing around (exactingly, of course) the full scope of Fincher's filmmaking mastery. This movie's protagonist is detail-obsessive to a calculating degree, and the director bringing him to cinematic life from Matz's graphic novels of the same name also keeps earning that description. The Fight Club, The Social Network and Mank helmer couldn't be more of a perfectionist about assembling The Killer just so, and the feature couldn't be more of a testament to his meticulousness.

Fincher's love of crime and mysteries between Se7en and The Killer has gifted audiences The Game, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl and Mindhunter, which have always felt like different books from a series rather than a director flipping through the same tome over and over. So it is with Michael Fassbender's long-awaited return to the screen after a four-year absence — X-Men: Dark Phoenix was has his last credit before this — which sees Fincher and his star aping each other in an array of ways. As well as being oh-so-drawn to minutiae, as the eponymous character reinforces in his wry narration, this duo of filmmaker and fictional assassin-for-hire are precise and compulsive about refashioning something new with favourite tools. For The Killer, it's fresh avenues to fulfill his deadly occupation. For the man who kicked off his feature career with Alien³ and now collaborates with a Prometheus and Alien: Covenant alum, it's plying his own trade, too.

As Le Samouraï and Haywire have before this — Fassbender also appeared in Haywire, aptly — plus the John Wick franchise, The Killer finds someone in a shadowy line of work getting even murkier folks literally gunning for their demise. But first The Killer meets its namesake in Paris, camping out in an abandoned WeWork office, sleeping, people-watching, working through complicated yoga poses and grabbing a meal from McDonalds while dressed to resemble a German tourist, who he's certain that the French will avoid. Also on his to-do list: listening to every well-known song by The Smiths there is throughout the course of the film, because heaven knows he'll be miserable when his City of Light gig goes awry. And, as he waits, he coolly and calmly talks viewers through his highly disciplined, runs-like-clockwork, empathy-free approach to both life and death.

It all goes smoothly for the hitman until it doesn't, however. The Killer quotes Popeye to say "I am what I am" about his way of making a living and his penchant for it, but fellow tautophrase "it is what it is" also comes to mind when a painstakingly lined-up shot from afar doesn't hit its target. His reaction: "WWJWBD?" or "what would John Wilkes Booth do?", he opines. Really, the screen's latest contract killer hops continents, countries and cities in an existential and mortal bind not just because he's flubbed a job, but because he's soon tracking down the other villains who've made cleaning up his misfire brutally personal. So, while his first port of call from Paris is the Dominican Republic, New Orleans, Florida and just outside of New York are among the destinations that follow. Most folks that The Killer crosses paths with get a similarly succinct moniker, including The Lawyer (Charles Parnell, Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One), The Brute (Sala Baker, Jungle Cruise), The Expert (Tilda Swinton, Asteroid City) and The Client (Arliss Howard, Mank).

When Fassbender was once in everything everywhere for most of a decade, he too tinkered with many of the same traits that he's called upon to roll out in The Killer, from unrelenting in Hunger and single-minded in Shame to literally soulless in his Alien franchise stints and utterly consumed in Macbeth. His portrayal here is all killer, no throwbacks or filler, and it slays. He's as deadpan as he's ever been, as Fincher needs, but he's also exceptional as someone forced to realise that his rigid facade and detached air hides more than an all-business executioner inside. It's a mesmerisingly layered performance with fastidious subtleties, and that says as much without a word as all of those voiceover words. And, crucially, Fassbender knows and owns the tone: sardonic, and gleefully so.

It isn't just the mix of Reznor and Atticus Ross' latest ominous Fincher score — their first, for The Social Network, won them an Oscar — with Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce's lyrical 80s yearning but anti-yearning that's funny in The Killer. And whether 'How Soon Is Now?', 'Bigmouth Strikes Again' or 'There Is a Light That Never Goes Out' is echoing, there's no doubting the humour behind the movie's main music choice as it helps bring viewers into the mercenary's mind (American Psycho's use of Huey Lewis and the News tapped its toes in the same territory, but The Killer isn't asking anyone if they like The Smiths). Fincher and Walker litter comedic touches everywhere, from aliases straight out of classic sitcoms to pointed statements about well-known brands. It's there in the sly internal monologue that their central figure keeps uttering around "stick to the plain", "anticipate, don't improvise" and other rules; the cycle of repetition that comes with it; altercations and their corresponding commentary; and, unshakeably and purposefully, the bigger picture.

In look and efficiency, The Killer is also sharing what Swinton is selling in her scenes; both are icy, particular and sleek, with the film never wasting an emotion or moment. Fincher's frames glean as crisply as Swinton's blonde-topped David Bowie-channelling aesthetic, with help from Mank and Mindhunter cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt. The Killer is unsurprisingly rigorously pieced together as well, aided by the director's now six-time film editor Kirk Baxter (since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Welcomely stripped back, this a focused picture that's eager to be as streamlined as possible in a field, aka hired-gun flicks, where it's anything but a lone hand. Standing apart amid the murder-for-money masses is what The Killer wants, too, despite blending in being a professional must. As Fincher hones in on an assassin and the conscience that he says he doesn't have — including when noting that the amount of births and deaths each day means that his contribution to mortality rates barely registers — this riveting, reflective, slinkily engaging, expertly and finely pared thriller hits the bullseye in leaving an impression.


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