Hannah Strong


The Killer – first-look review

David Fincher and Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker reteam for a thriller about an assassin whose bad day at the office has nasty ramifications.

David Fincher is among our best chroniclers of morally grey – or indeed morally bankrupt – individuals, from Fight Club through to Gone Girl. In one fashion or another, this has been a guiding theme throughout his filmmaking career; he is drawn to characters that are as compelling as they are repulsive. He’s also a master of the American thriller, and many have eagerly awaited his return to the genre (particularly since it seems as though his Netflix series Mindhunter is unlikely to return).

Cue The Killer, then, his reunion with Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, loosely adapted from Alexis “Matz” Nolent and Luc Jacamon’s graphic novel series of the same name. Michael Fassbender plays a hitman who prides himself on his success rate and professionalism; when we meet him in Paris, he’s camped out in an unoccupied WeWork office on a stake-out. In a detached voice, he reflects on his occupation, reminiscent of Patrick Bateman’s opening monologue from American Psycho (or perhaps The Narrator from Fight Club). “Popeye the Sailor said it best,” he notes. “‘I am what I am.'”

As the sun rises and sets above the city, he goes about his daily routine: some light yoga; a quick McDonalds; a few rounds of The Smiths on his iPod. He finds it easiest to remain undetected by dressing as a German tourist (“No one really wants to interact with a German tourist” he says, “Especially not a Parisian.”) The anonymous figure speaks in quotations, pop culture references, mantras and cliches – the most telling of which is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” “I forget who said that,” The Killer tells us. It was occultist Aleister Crowley, referring to the discovery and following of one’s true purpose.

If the protagonist’s ‘true will’ is to kill, he does so without any passion. It’s more compulsive, though lacking the satisfaction that comes with a job well done. For The Killer, his actions are more like breathing. He abides by a strict set of rules (Stick to the plan; trust no one; forgo empathy; anticipate, don’t improvise; fight only the battle you’re paid to fight) and these have served him well. But when his latest job goes wrong in a split second, he finds himself the new target, and a woman he cares about suddenly becomes collateral damage. It might be time to bend the rules then.

Fincher and Walker succeed at presenting wet work as a far less glamorous profession than most media dealing with hitmen makes it out to be. A lot of waiting around, convenience food, and cleaning up messes. Erik Messerschmidt (who worked with Fincher on Mindhunter and Mank) positions The Killer as a cog in a well-oiled machine, just a face in a crowd, until he’s very suddenly not. The resistance to lean too heavily into the noir of it all is a smart one, pushing back against too many comparisons to Fincher’s earlier work. The opening sequence, in which we wait for The Killer to take the shot, is particularly tense, and although not as brutal as some of Fincher’s back catalogue, a stand-out fight scene is chaotic enough that it really looks like two men kicking the ever-loving Christ out of each other, instead of like a choreographed dance.

There’s the dry sense of humour we’ve come to expect too, which Fassbender delivers gamely. For such a pro, this hitman is having a rather extraordinary run of bad luck, and it’s entertaining to watch him repeatedly attempt to pull himself out of a new mess, all the while repeating that he is a professional, detached from his work before all else. Perhaps there isn’t quite as much to chew on as we got with Zodiac or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but as a character study, it’s fascinating that a man who talks so much can say so little, and Fassbender’s cold, indifferent gaze is well-suited for a man who appears more like a shark in a bucket hat. (His obsession with Morrissey and way of eating a McGriddle without the bun are notable indications of his sociopathy.)

Matz and Jacamon’s comic obviously had much more space to tell a far-reaching story, which showed an assassin slowly losing his mind after a lifetime of solitude and bloodshed. This two-hour imagining strips it back to a more familiar revenge arc, in which the protagonist needs to just tie up some loose ends so he can retire once and for all. It’s not exactly an ambitious plotline for someone like Fincher, but it’s certainly an engaging one, and the cryptic, constantly evasive protagonist is a puzzle that lingers after the credits roll. After all, how can someone so stepped in blood ever truly get away clean?

Published 3 Sep 2023

Tags: David Fincher Michael Fassbender The Killer

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