The Killer: Fincher Doesn’t Give a F**k
I’ve always appreciated the meticulousness with which David Fincher constructs his films – the imperceptible way in which he hides his special effects, the sheer control that he has over his directorial craft that, if one were to take a look at his films in chronological order, becomes more evident with each new work –, and director Jean-Pierre Melville put a spell on me ever since I saw a freshly restored version of L’Armée des ombres in my first year of college, at the Cinematheque. As such, when Alberto Barbera, the director of the Venice Film Festival (where The Killer had its world premiere in September), said that the latest film by the American filmmaker not only reminded him of Le Samouraï, but that it is also strikingly similar to this classical film that Fincher seems to understand very well, and that it’s as if Melville made a film in 2023, my enthusiasm was anything but small.
Fast forward two months later and… it’s incredible how much truth there is to Barbera’s statement. Le Samouraï is a constant influence upon the filmography of Fincher, but in the case of The Killer, the similarities aren’t just impacting the visual level of the film, its camera movements and framing choices, but they also extend onto the narrative plain (another cause being the eponymous comic book series by Alexis Nolent, which was its source material.)
Here, we face a protagonist who is reserved, silent, constructed in the vein of Alain Delon’s solitary Jef Costello, but is nameless (if one is to set aside the various fake names that he uses for himself). A freelance assassin who kills time while waiting for his targets to align with the sightline of his gun, the character performed by Michael Fassbender is a man who has become complacent with his role as a small cog within the larger machine of criminality. Or maybe he’s just a little bit lazy – why bother when you can also make money this way? He doesn’t even think about motives – his victims are the problem of his clients. “Only fight the battles that you are prepared to fight”, he often says to himself, a monologue that is read by Fassbender in a cold, automatic tone, which he seems to have borrowed from another one of his characters, David, the android in the final two films in the Alien series. What is interesting about this monologue that traverses the better part of the film is the fact that, in its absence, The Killer functions exactly like Le Samouraï and other French films from the sixties, from Le trou to Le cercle rouge, where silence is primordial, and the deeds of the anti-heroes are documented minutely, in real-time, thus inviting spectators to become their accomplices.
In the first sequence, for example, which finds the protagonist at work, the dialogue is almost absent (or if it exists, it’s irrelevant – it’s mere small talk), and the sounds and music are diegetic (soon enough, we find out that our assassin likes to get his work done while listening to The Smiths). The monologue which we listen to as we witness the sniper’s calculated preparation of killing a millionaire in the building across the street, has a certain air of smugness. This killer is so confident in his experience and excellent services, that it’s truly surprising and unexpectedly funny to see how, when, at the end of such a painstaking and controlled process, he misses his target due to human error. Because The Killer isn’t just Melville 2.0: it’s also classic Fincher, a witty sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that finds its director flirting with both B-series movies and a level of craftiness and black humor that is A+ in quality. This failure, which is something new to him, is so shocking that the protagonist seems much more worried about the possibility that he might not be as good as he thought, than the probable consequences of his failed mission – which include a brutal attack on his girlfriend, whom he thought was safe in the Dominican Republic.
But, in contrast to his underrated adaptation of Stieg Larsson, and that’s probably the film’s only downside, The Killer is quite simple: the main narrative thread, which closely follows the tropes of a revenge thriller, is linear and has no flourishes in its script; a skeleton that has just a little bit of flesh too, so that it cannot be considered a mere skeleton. The protagonist’s final choice, which comes after two hours that pass imperceptibly, functions following the monologue that contradicts his on-screen actions, but it seems to rob the film of a climax. But the fact that a film is simple doesn’t mean that it’s also simplistic: The Killer works as a meta-commentary on Fincher’s filmography and his perfectionist style of work, while also making several observations on the sideline about the limits of control, work and technology, death and capitalism (the assassin orders his incriminating tools from an Amazon locker).
After John Wick, whose body count rises from one installment to another, gave birth to a wave of films about assassins that have an increasingly expansive style, it’s a relief to see something that swims against the current, featuring a lowkey killer that tries to pass by unnoticed. And it’s interesting to see an invisible stylist like Fincher renouncing the narrative complexity of his previous films in favor of something more simple and subtle, which allows him to have fun and to linger in a more personal area. „I don’t give a f**k”, Fassbender’s character says at one point, regarding his methods, and that attitude also seems to apply to the entire film: boys just want to have fun! And fun they had!
The Killer is streaming on Netflix as of today, November 10.
Co-programmer of TIFF and BIDFF. Slightly obsessed with Billy Wilder and Paul Thomas Anderson. When he's not watching films and TV or spends his time on Letterboxd, he dreams of his own scripts.
David Fincher / Andrew Kevin Walker
Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton, Charles Parnell, Arliss Howard