Director David Fincher isn’t afraid to take on adapting other people’s worlds to create his own. He got his start directing music videos for the likes of Paula Abdul, Rick Springfield, Aerosmith, and A Perfect Circle, before tackling films like Fight Club (1999), The Social Network (2010), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), and Gone Girl (2014) (among his various originals). His films have a tendency to focus on the darker aspects of humanity — dark web riders, sociopaths, fractured psyches —even while shedding the tiniest bit of light in the process. His latest work, The Killer (stylized as The K__.ller), is an adaptation by screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en; Brainscan) of a French comic limited series (Le Tueur) by writer Alexis Nolent and artist Luc Jacamon that ran from October 1998 to September 2014. This series followed an initially nameless assassin who struggles under the weight of his actions. Now, with Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds) in the lead, Fincher invites audiences to consider the dangers that lurk within the unassuming person waiting behind us in line, the seemingly innocuous individual passing us on the road, or the innocent-appearing being picking up their packages from an Amazon storage locker. More than that, Fincher’s The Killer ponders whether those who proclaim a spiritual skepticism ever remain fully impartial.
Hired to take out a specific target, the man only identified as The Killer (Fassbender) waits patiently in his nest, holding up until the client arrives. However, when something goes wrong, a clean-up is ordered and The Killer must confront the consequences to his actions. But is the cold and logical Killer able to consider anything beyond the mission or is he able to recognize what it is he really wants?
The Killer is a surprisingly internal film. With the exception of Fassbender’s narration, The Killer himself rarely speaks on screen. When he does, it’s neither mechanical nor cold, but it is precise and forward. In place of this comes the score from frequent collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network; Gone Girl; Mank), filled with synth sounds of harmony and discord that remind this Nine Inch Nails (NIN) fan of 2008’s instrumental collection Ghosts I-IV. That album is described on the official NIN site as “… a sprawling, entirely improvised, instrumental journey. Meant to be listened to on a rainy day or a long night drive. Reznor’s career as a successful film composer can be directly linked to this experiment.” If you’re familiar with the album, the Killer score sounds like a direct relative that could be subtitled Ghosts VII, each album comprised of driving beats (I), melodic soundscapes (II), playful adventures (III), and a mix of hard edged keystrokes with morose string strikes (IV). Back to the point, just as each album of Ghosts and each track within them flows together to tell a larger audio-based story, so does the score created by Reznor and Ross convey the internal process of The Killer. Fassbender’s delivery rarely raises above a natural conversational tone and his physicality is focused on precision, thereby making it difficult to get a read on The Killer’s true self. The score, therefore, does the lifting for him, providing something dreamy or atmospheric to convey calm (perhaps with a theremin for a little other-worldly feel), only to shift into discordant noise that, quite literally, makes it difficult to focus on anything other than the sonic assault.
The desire to look inward is a prevalent concept throughout the film, beginning with The Killer’s introduction. Through the monologue, we are invited to understand what it takes to be an assassin via a verbal manifesto, something which The Killer repeats to us as we continue along this six chapter + epilogue adventure. The thing is, and this is key, don’t expect The Killer to follow the well-worn path of operatives on the run utilized in films like Mission: Impossible (1996), The Bourne Identity (2002), The Losers (2010), or Salt (2010). In those films, the protagonists are clear, in their logic/morals and their abilities, as are the antagonists. Here, The Killer’s actions frequently break from his manifesto, often timed to occur right as The Killer is explaining something, executed to great darkly comedic effect. Amusing as it may be, the expectation of a cool assassin taking out various rogues sounds exciting, thrilling even, except that’s not what this film is. This isn’t The Killer as the unfavored odds to win, wherein we observe as he “does what he does best and what he does isn’t very nice” type of situation. Rather, the whole of the film is intended to be an exploration of what it means for a professional killer whose entire worldview is “don’t get involved” and “keep it professional” when he doesn’t. What does it mean for a killer, with the resources that he has, to react as if he doesn’t? What is it that The Killer really wants and is he ready to admit/accept it? It’s because of this that I think the film is going to be harder to reach by general audiences because their expectations are going to cause them to be blinded by the thematic through line.
These things are interesting, making for the kind of highly thoughtful, certainly technical, film that Fincher fans have come to expect from his work in cinema and television. And yet, one can’t help but feel too distant from everything to engage with it, at least on an initial watch. Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (Mank) returns to work with Fincher, inserting stillness by matching that of Fassbender in his performance, only really moving when the actor does, but even then, not always, creating an subtle sense of control emanating from The Killer within the celluloid frame. Messerschmidt also utilizes a great deal of natural light, enabling The Killer to be hidden from our view as though we were his prey. This distance is thematically interesting but emotionally detaching. Where this utilization of natural light creates a problem, though, is during a major fight set piece and the audience really can’t tell what the hell is happening. It’s perhaps the most tension-filled sequence of the entire film and we can’t really tell who’s doing what to whom. Rather than creating concern for The Killer, it’s just confusion, except for the scant few moments when the natural lighting is enough to let us see. This combined with some narrative choices in the adaptation by Walker and one begins to wonder if the psychological ruminations of The Killer were too difficult to manage from page to screen.
The crux of Fincher’s The Killer comes down to a psychological question The Killer is running from despite being on a physical mission of his own making. It’s a question made plain through an exchange late in the film dressed as a joke. An old joke I’m almost sure my Uncle Steve told me as a teen (he knows a lot of good ones). The joke, I think, is intended to make one amused as they wrestle with the unexpected nature of the punchline, while simultaneously bringing to bear the truth of The Killer’s struggle. The thing is, as presented from start to finish, there’s too much that *is* expected from this genre of film that the lack of it will create unease and distrust, thereby preventing the point from being realized, especially given the too cool performance from Fassbender. The cast is great, the concept is interesting, but there’s something in the execution that leaves the wallop the narrative seems to strive for to fall flat.
In select theaters October 27th, 2023.
Available on Netflix November 10th, 2023.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.