Movie Review: “The Killer”

The films of David Fincher (going back to “Alien 3”) invariably, undeniably belong to his vision, and they’re almost always iconic, in some way—no matter the genre shift. Between his groundbreaking ‘90s work with “Fight Club” or “Se7en”, to later masterpieces like “Zodiac” and “The Social Network,” you begin to see how the arc of it all lands on something like “The Killer.”

The Killer (Michael Fassbender) is a cold-blooded assassin, hired by the best to eliminate problems without a trace of culpability. He’s great at his job. His mantras, repeated over and over, define the philosophy of that job—and life in general. “Stick to the plan. Anticipate, don’t improvise. Trust no one. Forbid empathy. Weakness is vulnerability.” Which essentially boils down to Alister Crowley’s quote, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

The Killer (Fassbender’s only credited name) somehow botches a job and finds himself on the run. The only problem is he has a girlfriend, Magdala (Sophie Charlotte), who bears the immediate retribution of The Killer’s employers. Upon learning of her fate, he sets out to climb the chain of command, and get some payback.

Based on the French graphic novel “Le Tueur” by writer Alexis Nolent and artist Luc Jacamon, Fincher breaks the story up into episodic (yet conjoined) chapters, as The Killer methodically globe hops, staying under the radar and tracking his prey. Invisible (hopefully) until he wants to be seen. When they see him, they know the score.    

It is, in the classic sense, a bad ass movie.

This is Fincher’s stylistic hat-tip to his own “Fight Club” (among a couple of his other past works). The narration through the first half, in particular, and the way he manages to make that narration organically meld with his meticulously shot, dark, and ambient visuals (courtesy of cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, who worked with Fincher on his “Mindhunter” series) is poetic. Possessing the ebb and flow elements of internal thought bubbles combined with the violent consequences —while largely (weirdly) not devolving into the tropes of a comic book adaptation. It all makes sense. The mantras and nihilism. And it finds a sense of humor in the strangest places.

That’s the thing. The sparse moments of comedy are about as organic as everything else Fincher has done. A thin line traversed by his screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (“Se7en”) and Fincher’s keen direction of the material. Much like “Se7en” or even “Fight Club”, to a degree, the action sequences are kind of sparse to non-existent, though the sense of building tension makes almost any violent encounter seem magnetic and suspenseful—to the point that any bit of levity is a winking release.

That suspense is certainly helped by the brooding, awesome score by Oscar Winners—and often collaborators with Fincher, Trent Reznor, and Atticus Ross (offset by a joyous abundance of classic songs by The Smiths), all of which add to another layer of nostalgia and understated humor to the proceedings.

I’m being purposefully vague about a lot of this. The joy is in the journey. I’m just here to tell you that you should watch “The Killer”. Ideally, in a dark room with excellent sound reinforcement. It’s a tonal masterpiece, a strange (or maybe not so much) left turn for Fincher after his underappreciated Orson Welles semi-documentary, “Mank.”

“The Killer” is Fincher’s best since “Zodiac” and one of the best films of 2023.

“The Killer” is currently streaming on Netflix.

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