Film Review: The Killer

Words: Oliver Parker
Sunday 29 October 2023
reading time: min, words

David Fincher returns with another meticulously crafted thriller...

THE KILLER Actor Michael Fassbender Credits Netflix (1)

Director: David Fincher
Starrring: Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton, Charles Parnell
Running time: 118 minutes

A sharply cold and distant protagonist, beautiful digital photography of wet floors and streetlights, a tightly packed story focusing on tension over narrative – David Fincher is unarguably back on form. Whilst The Killer is based off a graphic novel, it isn’t far off Fincher’s work last decade in adapting airport novels (Gone Girl or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) into meticulously crafted genre films that aren’t afraid of injecting a heavy dose of melancholia into them. At the core of the film is the titular killer – played by a perpetually vacant Michael Fassbender – whose work is defined by a strict doctrine, a set of codes that prevents him from ever slipping up. Until of course, he does. A botched hit early on the film sends the killer on a spiral that ultimately leads him into a flurry of revenge; although he continues to maintain one thing: never breaking his rigidly defined rules.

We start and end the film knowing very little about the central character, who remains entirely anonymous. All the information we learn is driven by internal monologues spoken by him as he wanders through the films various locales: whether he is musing about the infinite boredom he faces, making humorous comments about the Military Industrial Complex or simply debating whether to buy a McDonalds for lunch (one of the many product placements in the film, depicted with a subtle disdain). Fassbender delivers these lines with an incredibly impassive yet humorous nature. His overall character clearly influenced, both stylistically and characteristically, by Alain Delon in Le Samourai; but also very similar to Tom Cruises’ deeply existential hitman in Collateral, who shares a very close world view to Fassbender’s nameless killer.

The opening sequence is where most of this philosophical monologing comes into play, it is also where we first hear a sound that will persist throughout the entire film: the gloomy sound of The Smiths; a band that the killer clearly obsesses over, as it seems to be all he listens too. Morrissey’s haunting voice and Marr’s jangly riffs cut in and out of the film as the killer follows and watches potential victims. A gag that feels like it should eventually get tiring, but remains persistently funny whenever a different Smiths song chimes in. This opening sequence is the most overtly Hitchcockian the film gets, with Fassbender’s killer spying on a myriad of people through windows and balconies via a sniper scope – an obvious tribute to James Stewart in Rear Window; Fincher captures the vacant expression on his face through reflections and windows which adds to the voyeuristic feeling of this early section.

The film is defined by its singular solitary character, which gives it a feeling of tangible desolation

Like most globetrotting assassin films travelling is absolutely crucial to the films plot, with the locations ranging from Paris, the Dominican Republic and eventually New York: each chapter having its own self-contained location, as if it were a level out of the Hitman video game. More important to these places is the act of travelling itself. Large portions of the film are made up of commuting, whether it be drifting along a night-stricken highway (which has rarely looked this gorgeous), nervously passing through the security of an airport or evading the police on a scooter around the urban jungle of Paris. Fincher captures the pensive nature of how lonely the character’s life is, existing almost entirely in these non-places (spaces of transience where humans remain anonymous) that only heighten his alienation with the society that surrounds him. The film is defined by its singular solitary character, which gives it a feeling of tangible desolation.

In a recent Guardian interview Fincher says that Zodiac (his 2006 film about the investigations surrounding the infamous zodiac killer) was a film that prioritised people over plot. The Killer is similar in many ways: the film certainly has a plot, but it is so threadbare and rudimentary that it becomes background to the film’s heavy atmosphere that Fincher develops across the two-hour runtime. Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (their third film working together) use digital technology, something that Fincher has dedicated his entire post 2000s career to using, to bend light and shadow to craft a tenebrous ambience that permeates throughout the entire film. Alongside this is the highly textured soundscape which features a combination of fantastic sound design – with every minute sound being captured – and the fantastic ambient score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (their fifth consecutive Fincher soundtrack) which blends perfectly with the film’s natural sounds.

Despite being a fairly loose film, with a hefty dose of dry wit, Fincher is able to crank the tension up when a sequence demands it. One example of this is a brilliant fight scene that adds a level of brutality to the film previously unseen: the sounds of grunting and crunching bones bursting through the stressful images. Despite this however, there are still elements of slapstick woven into even the films tensest scenes which feels naturally integrated into the film’s action. Most of the film’s tensity comes from the fact you are never sure where Fassbender’s character is going to go; his frequently unemotional face makes it hard to predict his future actions. Most of the film’s most shocking scenes occurring within the span of a few seconds, out of the blue, with a methodical coldness reminiscent of the murder sequences in Zodiac.

Whilst some people might find The Killer a bit lightweight compared to the unescapable nihilism of the director’s previous thriller works – thankfully it isn’t as dour as Se7en or as misanthropic as Fight Club – but it is a fun, highly enjoyable work that knows exactly when to shift tones and become something much more sinister. Whilst The Killer isn’t Fincher’s very best, it is a thoroughly exciting piece of genre cinema and hopefully represents a shift back to the style of thrillers that Fincher is so great at crafting.

The Killer is now screening at Broadway Cinema.

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