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‘The Killer’ review: Fincher in conversation with the assassin film—and himself

Michael Fassbender stars as a lonely assassin in this subversive puzzle of a film by David Fincher

Michael Fassbender in 'The Killer'

By Uday Bhatia

LAST PUBLISHED 11.11.2023  |  03:35 PM IST

David Fincher has done some perverse things over three decades in film. But nothing, not even a head in a box, can compare to the repeated interruption of Smiths songs in The Killer. Michael Fassbender’s unnamed assassin is in the habit of listening to the English band as he goes about his work. But Fincher won’t let us hear the familiar plaintive tracks, cutting into them with diegetic sound or the killer’s voiceover. It’s a maddening, mischievous choice: spend millions acquiring some of the most beloved tracks in pop music, then prevent the viewer from enjoying them. Hang the DJ. 

This sort of willful subversion is very much the point. The Killer, based on a French graphic novel of the same name, deconstructs the figure of the professional assassin. And when it puts it back together, the parts don’t quite fit. Fassbender’s killer speaks in motivational blurbs, Sun Tzu-like aphorisms and bad hardboiled patter. He’s an ascetic and a workaholic. He has no style, but a lot of ability. His aim is to blend in, but he stands apart. He has no personality, yet is unique.

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Tonally, too, The Killer is a weird mixture. It’s cold and slick like so much of Fincher, yet doesn’t seem to take itself, or its protagonist, very seriously. More than once, it punctures the killer’s very serious recitation of his habits with the same disdain it shows the Smiths tracks. After all the talk about preparation and concentration, the first significant action by the killer is a mistake, a botched job in Paris, when his sniper bullet hits a dominatrix instead of the target in a high-rise across the street. The killer flees to his home in the Dominican Republic, only to find that his employers have already paid a visit and badly injured his girlfriend. 

Like John Wick, this killer then digs up a box of weapons and goes in search of those who want him dead. But Fassbender’s assassin isn’t sympathetic like Keanu Reeves’ Wick, and his opponents—save one—aren’t formidable. If The Killer is in conversation with another film, it’s Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967). Fassbender’s floppy hat-wearing, philosophy-spouting loner is the uncool mirror image of Alain Delon’s sharp-dressed, philosophy-spouting loner. Melville took American noir rules and interpreted them through a stripped-down, highly aestheticized French gaze. Fincher here is working with French source material for an American film, but making it faintly ridiculous, as if noir is past its sell-by date (the voiceover is like Elmore Leonard that misses the mark every time).

Given how internal the film is, it’s easy to imagine it as Fincher’s dialogue with himself. He's in the same place as the killer at the start of the film: this is, after all, tailor-made Fincher material, he can’t miss. “I’ve actually grown to enjoy proximity work… anything with a little creativity," the killer confesses. Is Fincher bored with his reputation as a director of hard, cold, beautiful things? Did the fervent calls for a third season of Mindhunter annoy him, a public clearly happy for him to sacrifice years of motion picture work for the narcotic of serialized storytelling? The assassin keeps repeating how important it is to stay detached—even after he goes on a very personal series of kills. Three years ago, Fincher stuck his neck out with Mank, a more personal story than usual, written by his father. The reception was lukewarm. “How is ‘I don’t give a fuck’ going?" the killer asks himself—perhaps Fincher wryly noting his return to ‘detached’ films.

The film’s lone fight scene—a violent, cramped struggle between the killer and the assassin who was sent to kill him at his home—reminded me of the incredible tussle between Gina Carano and Fassbender in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire (2011). There’s a nail gun fired into a chest thrice—but that’s all the provocation Fincher is offering. The other murders are efficient, dispassionate… one is even abandoned. You could see it as a refusal to provide genre thrills, but even more than that, this is Fincher refusing to comply with a lay viewer’s idea of a ‘Fincher film’.

It may not behave quite like one, but it does look and sound and move like a Fincher film. Longtime editor Kirk Baxter helps chop up Morrissey and Marr. Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker reunites with the director 28 years after Seven. Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor supply what only they can, a score that’s sometimes like huskies in a wind tunnel and sometimes the most beautiful electronic wash you’ve ever heard. 

The film’s pivotal scene has Fassbender across a table from Tilda Swinton in a high-end restaurant. She’s ordered a gourmet spread and expensive whiskey. The killer won’t partake—she assumes it’s out of caution, but it’s actually a philosophical choice. He rejects the high life, that of the aesthete killer with good taste. He eats McDonald's instead. He listens to classic rock. He dresses like a dork. He wants to be “one of the many", even though this seems impossible. That Fincher allows him his wish is the final surprise in a fascinating puzzle of a film. 

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‘The Killer’ is on Netflix.

Also read: 'Mank' review: Drunk history and 'Citizen Kane'