David Fincher’s hitman thriller The Killer is a technical marvel, but adds little new to the genre
Fincher follows up 2020’s Mank with the latest film in his four-year deal with streaming giant Netflix, switching gears massively with this ruthless neo-noir about a hitman on a killing spree, an adaption of the Eisner winning graphic novel of the same name. Michael Fassbender stars as a character known only as ‘the killer,’ a hired gun staking out an apartment in Paris while he tries to carry out his latest hit.
A controlled and coldly calculating man, we watch the killer as he moves through his pre-murder routine. Narrating to the audience in a Patrick Bateman-esque monologue, a lengthy opening scene has him guiding the audience through how to slip through the streets undetected, where to eat on an assignment and how to clean up after oneself to avoid detection. He practices his morning yoga routine (Fassbender does a mean warrior 3) and obsesses over his heart rate – opining that he has to get it under 60bpm if he wants to make the perfect shot.
He also, he tells us, has a strict set of rules for working in this industry. ‘’Stick to the plan.’’ ‘’Anticipate don’t improvise.’’ ‘’Trust no one.’’ ‘’Forbid empathy.’’ “Fight only the battle you’re paid to fight.” When his hit in Paris goes wrong and the killer scrambles back to his safehouse only to find that he has been betrayed and a hit put out on him and his; he embarks on a revenge mission against those responsible and struggles to stick to his own rules.
As you would come to expect from David Fincher, The Killer is a meticulously crafted film with an attention to detail that only he is capable of. The camera switches between a third person POV and that of the killer, noticeably shifting when we’re supposed to be seeing through Fassbender’s eyes. The sound design mimic’s what he’s hearing, pumping out of only one side when he puts in an earbud to listen to his work playlist (The Smiths, it’s a lot of The Smiths.)
A terrific fight scene between Fassbender and Kiwi stuntman/actor Sala Baker has a genuinely percussive feel to it with the frenetic camera work and aggressive sound, you’re almost tricked into thinking you can feel each bone crushing hit on your own body. So mad is Fincher’s attention to detail that he filmed the entire thing on a dolly or tripods and then added the shaky handicam effect in post-production; that’s how dedicated he was to having every fit and jerk precisely how he wanted it to be.
Fassbender brings a superb physicality to the role, appearing to carry genuine lethal force in his body in nearly every scene. Particularly impressive are scenes where he assembles his sniper rifer without looking, whilst maintaining a completely unblinking watch on his targets. His dialogue is all scarily softly spoken, imbued with a dark humour suggestive of just how inhuman this man may have become over the years.
But where The Killer is technically brilliant, it’s plot is unfortunately just average and doesn’t really bring anything new or unexpected to the game. When Fassbender is guiding us through his lessons on how to be the perfect criminal and the rules that help him get away with it, it’s delivered as if for an audience that doesn’t already consume hundreds of thousands of hours of true crime content and other assassin led stories. We’ve heard it all before, from Melville’s Le Samouraï to Leon, John Wick to Drive, we know the cold professional schtick and really don’t need it explained to us again.
At times he thinks or speaks about the creative ways he would like to kill people if he had more time, from poisoning to faking accidents – and you can’t help but wish we were watching him do those things rather than just another man in black stalking around with a silencer.
The Killer is a very solid film, its clinical and precise nature a distilled representation of the man at its helm. Watching Fassbender’s world weary assassin making hit after hit is grimly satisfying and occasionally genuinely shocking, and the gritty realism with which the hitman life is portrayed feels refreshing after the last few years of designer clad jet-setting hitmen. It’s not something I’m immediately keen to rewatch though, and coloured by my extremely high expectations of both Fincher and Fassbender, it is far from their best work.
The Killer is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival. It releases in select cinemas from 27th October 2023 before streaming on Netflix from 10th November 2023