The Killer (2023)
Director: David Fincher
Screenwriter: Andrew Kevin Walker
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton, Arliss Howard, Charles Parnell
When it comes to the work of David Fincher, his reputation as one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation would seem fairly earned. With films like Se7en, Gone Girl and The Social Network under his belt, it is hard to disagree. Though, with each movie that is hailed as a masterpiece there seems to be an equally underappreciated film that feels overlooked. For every Fight Club there is The Game, and for every Zodiac there is a Panic Room. Then there are those films that do big at the Oscars, garnering a ridiculous number of nominations only to never really be spoken about again. When was the last time you heard anyone talking about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Mank? So, with the release of The Killer, Fincher’s latest for streaming giant Netflix, one can’t help but to wonder if it will stand out as a masterpiece like Zodiac, come and go like Mank, or find its audience much later in life like The Game. Though its mixed reception by critics seems to point towards the treatment of one of the latter choices, perhaps it deserves the former.
The film follows Michael Fassbender’s titular Killer as he is embroiled in an international manhunt after an assassination goes wrong. Though the general idea of the film is one we have seen many times, this is not a bad thing. Just look at Michael Mann’s Thief. Even by 1981 the idea of a gangster pulling “one last job” had been done before, but it’s all about the execution. The same goes for The Killer.
It opens in Paris. Fincher, through Fassbender as narrator, introduces us to this character and his world in an opener so great that it feels as though any amount of time could have passed without our noticing. Simply, it shows Fassbender’s character as he waits on his first mission of the movie, explaining the hardest part about being an assassin; the boredom. Much like the character of the Killer, this opening is cold, calculated and precise. Long takes with steady, still shots. Calm. It is the perfect introduction. Stylish and funny, it gives us a perfect sense of the world and tells us everything we need to know in order to understand what happens from here. Throughout it, Fassbender gives us insight into the mind of the character, explaining his own morality towards the work that he does. He doesn’t ask questions about why or who he is killing, he always sticks to the plan, and he shows no empathy. That is until the mission goes awry, at which point hitmen are sent after the Killer and we see the character’s ideology disrupted.
The rules set out by Fassbender and writer Andrew Kevin Walker at the beginning of the film are clever in this respect, as they work as a good reference point for both the audience and the character to return to throughout as we watch Fassbender struggle to maintain his cold and calculated nature. Moreso, it places us in the shoes of the Killer, allowing us inside his head in order to understand his actions. Better yet, Fincher uses this as a tactic to play a moral tug of war between our individual morality and that of the character’s, leading to a viewing experience in which we constantly hope – and maybe even believe – that we will see one outcome but instead are gifted another.
Not only does Walker’s writing and Fincher’s direction draw us into this world but Fassbender’s performance sells the film as a whole. Though there is an awful lot of narration throughout, we rarely see the Killer speak on screen, meaning much of Fassbender’s performance is told entirely through his body in an incredibly physical performance. Similar to Fincher’s direction of the picture, many of Fassbender’s movements are incredibly precise, leaving little doubt about this man’s abilities as a highly trained assassin. Unlike other films of the same ilk, such as John Wick, the action sequences in The Killer are restrained. Some may feel short changed by the film as a result, but it is in this sense that it stands out. Not only are many of the action sequences directed in such a slick way that it comes across as a reminder of the character’s skill, but when these sequences do become more violent or rough or even last longer, the more impactful they become. It is through little nuances like this that Fincher shows his masterful direction. Just as his meticulous directing style brought a cold and calculated manner to characters like Gone Girl’s Amy Elliott Dunne or The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg, it too has the same effect in The Killer.
With the feeling that Mank simply came and went, rarely mentioned now alongside Fincher’s other work, the fear that the Netflix era of David Fincher’s career was proving to be a disappointment was particularly pertinent. Thankfully, The Killer makes it clear that this could not be further from the truth. David Fincher proves that he is still a director with a killer aim that never misses, using everything at his disposal so delicately that it simply takes your breath away.
Though The Killer may seem conventional on paper, and the lack of big action set pieces may leave some disappointed, this slick and stripped back thriller brings us one of 2023’s best films through the character study of a cold as ice killer we simply can’t take our eyes off.