David Fincher's latest doesn't reach top-tier status, but despite its familiarity, fans will appreciate what he brings to a revenge thriller with a return to form performance from Michael Fassbender.
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With any new film announced with David Fincher’s name attached, the immediate anticipation is already there, knowing anything he releases will be an excellent yet dark path of intrigue with whatever project he takes on. Always having an essential eye for perfectionism, Fincher has been one of my favorite filmmakers since I was a teenager, with only one film I don’t like. The last two months had me going back to watching almost everything he's done, and there's something about his style that paints a portrait for its audiences to root for the most unlikely characters, which is why films such as "The Social Network" and "Fight Club" are all-time classics.
So, there was some build-up when he re-teams with his "Se7en" screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker on delivering the cold and gripping thriller that’s right in his wheelhouse, "The Killer," an adaptation of a French graphic novel series of the same name by Alexis "Matz" Nolent and illustrator Luc Jacamon. On the surface, his second film with Netflix following his Oscar-winning biopic "Mank" might be a simple revenge tale that’s been told thousands of times. Still, you can forgive its familiarity when you have Fincher behind the camera.
In this, Michael Fassbender plays the unnamed titular character, a cold-blooded contract hitman with a precise method of doing his profession. Waiting for days on his next target in an abandoned WeWork loft space across the street of a hotel, we learn about his routines to keep him recognizable. Every time he prepares for a kill, there’s always this mantra of sorts he repeats to himself: “Stick to your plan. Anticipate, don’t improvise. Trust no one. Empathy is weakness. Weakness is vulnerability.”
During one of his missions in Paris, he fails to take out a target. His near-miss has him trying to cover his tracks but gets quick attention from those associated with the hit-gone-wrong, who then proceeds to attack his romantic partner (Sophie Charlotte) in his hideout in the Dominican Republic, where she is left hospitalized. Told through various chapters of its locations and victims, he goes on a globe-trotting quest to search for answers and take out the employers involved while having him confront the exact philosophy he lives by.
Fincher hasn’t lost his touch while keeping the investment from the consequences of what happens when a missed shot changes the course in a matter of days. Nothing is new to the standard hitmen journey on-screen, yet it’s all about how it’s crafted meticulously while subverting your expectations sometimes. Much like how our main character is focused and stays precise, never to make the smallest of mistakes, there’s this meta nature of how Fincher himself loves to do the same with his perfectionism. Months later, we’ll learn which scenes required 90 to 100 takes on the small things of how we perceive them in his mind.
Aside from Fincher doing what he does to make an impeccable thriller, the main draw is Fassbender himself. An actor of his status, he desperately needed a hit when the past few years saw him in critical or commercial flops one after the other ("The Snowman," "Assassin’s Creed"). Thankfully, after a four-year acting break, he has a terrific director to remind us how talented he can be with a calm, calculated, and intimidating performance that has in nearly every frame on-screen.
Most of his dialogue comes from his inner monologue, which gives the film some unexpected dark comedy. He barely spoke that much in the first act, setting the tone for what’s to come next and mostly expressing his emotions through his eyes that closely resembled Ryan Gosling from “Drive.” But you're kept in the dark, not knowing whether this assassin is good or bad, and most of the time, you're unsure whether killing someone innocent is the correct thing to do. All we know is that he's good at his job and has no sympathy with those he eliminates.
Throughout, he’s the primary focus, whereas everyone else he crosses paths with (Tilda Swinton as The Expert or Charles Parnell as The Lawyer) has limited screen time before the Killer does something and moves on to his next target. Swinton herself provides one of the most memorable scenes with a talk with her and Fassbender.
Remarkably, this is one of the director's more direct stories; it doesn't experiment with time but instead maintains a tight focus that makes us feel as though we're inside Fassbender's head the entire time. For some, it might be repetitive seeing him go from one job to the next, including using fake names of TV characters (Felix Unger, George Jefferson) or taking plane rides, feeling as if there weren’t many stakes involved. It wasn't for me since I was kept invested.
Does it make "The Killer" one of Fincher's strongest efforts? Compared to "Mank," which is beautiful yet somewhat underwhelming, this is more watchable. However, it doesn’t give us much depth about who the Killer is in his personal life. Though only some believe it would be helpful, including some background on how he came to be the way he is and focusing more on his connection with his girlfriend or the world-building might have made it more approachable. Maybe that was the same way in the comics. Merely that could give the impression that the conclusion won't be as satisfying as expected for everyone. For me, it ended pretty abruptly.
The best mindset is to go into this thinking it’s a neo-noir thriller instead of a fast-paced action movie. There’s only one action sequence midway through between Fassbender and the muscle-bound Sala Baker as The Brute that sees him almost emulate the "Bourne" style except for no shaky camera work. Still, it gets brutal with every hit in its hand-to-hand combat. That entire sequence made me realize Fincher hasn’t done a straight-up action movie, and he’d be perfect when the right plot comes to him.
Those who know Fincher’s knack for meticulous detail in his filmmaking will find his technical aspects near flawless when amazed by Erik Messerschmidt’s noir flavor of cinematography, the tight editing by Kirk Baxter that doesn’t waste a minute (the opening credits will be the fastest you’ll see all year), and the sound design brimming with tension. One aspect of why it stood out is when the Killer listens to a work playlist through his headphones to calm himself, primarily the greatest hits from the British band The Smiths.
Overall, "The Killer" leaned more into the typical revenge thriller than I expected, but seeing this is a refreshing reminder of how Fincher can tap into the genre with ease, giving fans a stylish thriller with Fassbender’s best role in years. It is safe to say it’s a worthy addition to his filmography, even though it is not one of his greatest. Whether you seek it out in theaters (the best option) or wait until it hits Netflix, it’s worth your time.