Jokes and frustrations circulate throughout Hollywood about David Fincher. The famed director became known for his “many tales” approach decades ago. His exacting nature pushed his Zodiac cast to the brink of insanity. For other actors, it proved too intense. Yet Fincher, a master filmmaker in every sense of the phrase, flirts with true greatness more than most. It’s telling that even his “low key” features seem to poke fun at himself or later meta-commentary over the facade. The Killer fits the bill, allowing Fincher to embrace his absurd perfectionism through a vessel as obsessive as himself. With Michael Fassbender’s immaculate performance, The Killer stuns while letting Fincher push his technical prowess.
An unnamed hitman (Fassbender) works a job in Paris. However, when it goes bad, he finds himself on the run. He tries to return to his girlfriend (Sophie Charlotte), only to discover she’s been attacked. Vowing vengeance, the Killer hunts down those responsible.
Fincher populates the world with character actors and stars. As usual, he casts actors and actresses we are well acquainted with and lets our history with them inform us of their roles. It’s no surprise when Charles Parnell arrives as the lawyer who sets the missions. Tilda Swinton dominates the screen as a highly proficient but calculating assassin. Arliss Howard as a thoughtless tech billionaire? Par for the course. Yet the screenplay, co-written by frequent Fincher collaborator Andrew Kevin Walker, provides enough room for each performer to embellish. These characters resemble similar characters on paper, but each little flare helps them feel unique, especially within the confines of Fincher’s camera.
Fassbender once dominated the screen as an assassin, albeit a mutant killer. It’s doubtful that X-Men: First Class was on Fincher’s watchlist, but it’s clear that Fassbender maintained that charisma. His cold calculations flash across his eyes. Even when Walker, Alexis Nolent, and Luc Jacamon’s screenplay provides ample narration, Fassbender’s minimalism keeps us engaged. It’s as if every movement eats into his caloric loss for the day. Given some of the backstory, it’s a wise guess that Fassbender thought of this. When every act is purposeful, it can feel overwhelming, yet Fincher’s attention to detail trains the viewer to recognize this aspect early in The Killer. By the finale, we know every shot and sequence matters.
While Fassbender dominates, scenes with Swinton and Kerry O’Malley stun. Both actresses find ways to steal the film from Fassbender for a minute. It’s quite something, and the ways that they accomplish the task are impressive. Swinton embodies the violence of a cobra, making it clear that one misstep means Fassbender dies with a quick bite. As her eyes scan for a way out, she becomes more dangerous by the second.
Meanwhile, O’Malley taps into the humanity of the moment. Her fears and worries spark empathy. O’Malley’s earnest delivery hangs with you, and the view of her hopeless face haunts you long after you leave the theater. By her last frames, it’s no wonder why Fassbender’s unnamed protagonist takes pity.
Yet it’s Fincher’s self-awareness that brings The Killer to another level. He mocks the repetition and repetitive nature of his direction. Even when every aspect is perfect, a slight nudge or step screws up the entire job for our protagonist. One wonders how often an extra misstepped in a shot, spawning another take from the director. What if, even with this level of precision, it’s still imperfect? Fincher openly mocks himself but simultaneously makes his case for his actions. If one thing is off, the entire project can collapse. Why risk it all when you can fix it?
In adding this meta element, Fincher opens the door for some hilarious moments. The recurring gags around insert shots, each featuring the name of extremely famous TV characters, hit the mark every time. Having the emotionless hitman listen exclusively to The Smiths speaks to his disconnect. Few bands featured more angst and unbridled emotion than the iconic jangle pop group. The yearning for connection sets him on a path to avenge the one person he forged that bond. Whether The Killer acts out of love or self-interest is left to us.
The finale of The Killer leaves us with one of Fincher’s darkest endings to date. As The Killer builds, it’s not shocking to see him land in this conclusion. Even when having fun in a violent world of contract killing, Fincher sprinkles in a taste of his worldview. It’s a poignant statement on who holds power in this world and makes The Killer another spectacular entry in his already impressive filmography.