After Mank, the passion project that saw legendary director David Fincher at his most indulgent, it’s nice to see the genius filmmaker dipping back into genre, so to speak, with a clean and clinical thriller. His latest comes in the form of The Killer, adapted from a comic series of the same name by one of Fincher’s earliest collaborators, the equally legendary Andrew Kevin Walker, whose script for Se7en remains a high-water mark in police procedural thrillers.
It’s been nearly 30 years since Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman teamed up to take down Kevin Spacey, and short of a small cameo in Panic Room, and a single script credit on Love, Death & Robots, Fincher and Walker haven’t worked together since. Shame, considering they go together like…two things that go together well but are more gruesome than any two things you’d expect me to say, but which I am unable to think of at the moment BECAUSE I LITERALLY TOOK A DAY OFF FROM A FILM FESTIVAL TO SEE A NON-FESTIVAL MOVIE AND MY BRAIN IS MUSH.
The Killer stars Michael Fassbender as a no-nonsense, unnamed hit-man (I am Jack’s contract killer), who frequently uses sitcom character names as aliases while he travels the world ending lives for money (points off for never checking into a hotel as Brian Hackett or Roy Biggins). He’s the best in the business because he operates by a very strict code. He’s not like The Transporter whose one rule (don’t open the package) is broken every single time (it’s worth noting that when the package is a woman, as it so often is, The Transporter fucks the package too — poor form, Frank).
The film opens with cold, emotionless narration from our protagonist, through which he exposits his code and describes his methodology. Being a professional killer is all about waiting. It’s all about being okay with boredom. It’s all about avoiding compromise and doing exactly what you’re contracted to do. Nothing more. Nothing less.
“Stick to the plan,” he states, absent of emotion. “Anticipate. Don’t improvise.”
The Killer, as we’ll call him, has no politics. He cares not if the contract is just or ethical. The only thing that matters to him is that he’s able to terminate his target, get out of dodge, and collect his paycheck. When you hire him, he ceases being a person and becomes fate. If you need someone to simply stop existing, he’s the guy who will get it done.
But that doesn’t make for an interesting movie, now does it?
The story kicks off with what, up until this point, was presumed to be an impossibility. Our hero (?) misses his shot. As such, he becomes a loose end. and when the loose end cleanup crew severely injures his significant other while searching for him, things become personal for the first time in his career. The Killer is no longer on a contract. Now he wants revenge. Granted, he’s not going to let on that revenge is his motivation. Nope, this is about cleaning up his own loose ends, so to speak. But as he shoots, stabs, and strangles his way down his check list, we see him making many concessions to his set of rules — concessions that only a feeling person would be apt to make.
It would be reductive to call this a “return to form” for Fincher, but it’s certainly a reduction of scale from his last few films. It’s a smaller, more compact story than the likes of Gone Girl, but that isn’t to say there isn’t something deeper going on here. The Killer feels a lot like Fincher explaining his own filmmaking process. It’s similar to what King did with Misery. No love lost to his more explicitly educational tome, On Writing, but the way his craft is synthesized into the text of the novel speaks volumes of King’s skill set. With The Killer, Fincher, although less explicitly, is telling a story of a fellow craftsman — a craftsman who excels at his trade, but who, despite his regular assertion otherwise, cannot help but become emotionally involved. In a way it’s a response to critics saying that Mank was too personal. I’m reminded of an episode of the WTF podcast in which Jodie Foster speaks fondly of working with Fincher, but takes a concerned, maternal tone when describing his fastidiousness, and the degree to which he tortures himself in the name of making the best movie he can.
One thing that really stands out is the strength of the edit. Longtime Fincher collaborator Kirk Baxter finds an energy and a geography that keeps the action sequences clear and propulsive and allows the slower segments to breathe while still maintaining a high level of tension. Every setting is mapped in such a way that we in the audience step into The Killer’s shoes at every turn. A few micro edits put to bed the notion that too many cuts is a bad thing. There’s really no limit if they’re utilized properly, and here they are employed to punctuate the fluidity of any scene with bits of visual information — oftentimes to make the already cruel bits of violence seem that much crueler. There’s a bullet to the head that isn’t expressly gory, but due to the slick edit, it stings just as bad as when Joe Pesci gets got in Goodfellas.
I am curious to check out the source material to see how it compares to the film, especially in regards to its bold and unexpected ending. I’d also like to see how similar Tilda Swinton looks to her illustrated counterpart, since here in the real world she appears to be illustrated despite being made of flesh and blood.
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker, based on The Killer by Alexis Nolent & Luc Jacamon
Starring Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton, Charles Parnell, Kerry O’ Malley
Rated R, 118 minutes