The rise of true crime and the explosion of crime thrillers tells us something maybe a touch uncomfortable about human nature - we're fascinated by people who kill other people. Stephen King once suggested that the reason for not only this but our love of horror and death is that it gives us a chance to safely access that which we know is morally reprehensible, while at the same time, maybe even giving ourselves a little dress rehearsal for our own mortality. Acclaimed director David Fincher has pursued crime and violence throughout his career, and yet as his work has evolved, so too has his relationship with it and how he chooses to explore our fascination with murder and death. A clear example of this was in his magnificent Netflix series 'Mindhunter', where criminal profilers sat across from the worst men imaginable and found their descriptions of their horrific crimes strangely disappointing in their banality. Fincher is less interested in why such people do what they do and more perhaps in why we should be so interested in the first place. He returns to these questions once again with his highly anticipated new film 'The Killer', a long-gestating adaptation of the French graphic novel by Alexis Nolent and Luc Jacamon.
The story is shockingly simple, almost derivative. A methodical hitman (Michael Fassbender, 'Prometheus') bungles a job, and after his girlfriend is attacked in an attempt to dispose of him, he travels across the United States to dispose of the people who came after him and the client who approved it. The whole premise sounds incredibly familiar, like endless action thrillers we've seen before, but not only is the film aware of this, its derivativeness seems to be the point. 'The Killer' is less interested in offering a fresh take on a familiar set of tropes as it is breaking down those tropes, focusing in on them with microscopic detail and assessing our relationship with them.
The opening scene of the film, where The Killer prepares for the assassination attempt he will ultimately fail to execute, is astonishing in how meticulous it is. If there is a secondary protagonist to 'The Killer', it is time, the force with which the primary protagonist is in the most intense relationship with. Fincher and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker ('Se7en') are less interested in the event itself as they are with the monastic preparation for it, the discipline with which this man completes his work. Not a single detail in this man's life hasn't been carefully considered, from how he maintains his body to the pattern with which he sleeps to the exact amount of protein he needs to ingest to keep him alert and ready. His eyes take in every detail of the street on which he waits, every face and every sound, captured with such startling clarity that we feel ourselves also cataloguing every single detail, all the more intrigued because we have no idea what this man is looking for. We can hear the voice in his head, the narration outlining the philosophies and reasonings behind his routine, but even that falls into benign drivel. His face is expressionless, his facade is inconspicuous. It isn't that he has fashioned himself into the unknowable, but more into someone you have no inclination to know. It isn't until the film is over that you realise you know nothing about this man, but that at no point did you ever desire to know more. His life is process and procedure, anticipating every possibility, doing only what is required and nothing more.
"Stick to the plan."
After the agonising build towards the assassination, the magnificent clockwork of the film shatters and The Killer is thrown into a storm of chaos. As such, the film follows suit. The camera begins to shake wildly, the editing becomes frantic and choppy, the tension built so exquisitely gives way to building anxiety. Like the heart monitor on The Killer's wrist, the film rings with the alarm of the unknown, and only when the danger has passed can you feel its breathing modulate, its heart begins to beat at a steadier pace. If we want to get cute with the metaphors, the film itself acts in a similar manner to the heart monitor. With only one very brief moment, we never leave his side. We follow his every move, always accompanied by his droll internal voice. Few films so expertly place you within the intimate orbit of a character the way 'The Killer' does, with the effect that, when a plan fails or an anomaly appears, we feel his confusion or fear acutely, in our bodies. That isn't to say we care about him per se - there isn't much there to really connect with - but the film isn't asking us to. It's a lazy perspective to believe that every work of art wants us to be on the side of its protagonist; some of the greatest works of art very much don't want that. What is more fascinating about 'The Killer', as clinical as it is, is that it wants us to act as observer at shockingly close quarters with our subject, not to sympathise but perhaps, in its sharper moments, to relate to him, to see those uncomfortable aspects of ourselves in his behaviour.
The craft of the film demands total immersion. While he may not have the same extraordinary skill with composition as Harry Savides ('Zodiac') or Jeff Cronenweth ('The Social Network', 'Gone Girl'), cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (Oscar winner for 'Mank') serves function, placing us in the cold eyes of The Killer with astonishing high definition detail. This man moves through beautiful places and past incredible sights, but is never interested in enjoying them, and as such, neither is the camera. Where Messerschmidt excels is in the balance between order and chaos, switching to handheld when The Killer loses control of the situation to a degree we haven't seen before in a Fincher film. It's disorienting, queasy and brilliant, aided further by Kirk Baxter's razor-sharp editing. The aesthetic star of the film though is the extraordinary sound design, a symphony of everyday sounds that's almost thunderous in its clarity. The Killer must see everything, but he must hear even more. Any variation within the logic of the sound around him might suggest danger, a threat to be neutralised, an anomaly to be averted. Just as he becomes hyper-aware of every sound, so do we by virtue of their prominence. The culmination of all these aesthetic choices, not to mention the production and costume design and another ripper of a score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is a complete immersion within the world of this man that, in a cinema, feels all the more enveloping. If only Netflix would book this in an IMAX cinema. It would be a glorious experience.
And yet, as engrossing as 'The Killer' is, it carefully keeps the audience at an arm's length. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of Fincher's work, and one that he has returned to continuously in the post-'Social Network' phase of his career. His films have become opaque, even difficult, refusing to offer the audience the satisfying experience they expect but instead forcing us into uncomfortable places, questioning what we wanted in the first place and why we should have wanted it. In 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo', the victory we believe we'll get to celebrate and the calm we think has been earned never comes. In 'Gone Girl', things feel unfinished, rhythms feel off, the easy ending hasn't been reached. In 'Mank', maybe his foulest film, art hasn't won out, the hypocrisy has been allowed to win and the hero complicit. I say all this with the caveat that these are three extraordinary films, and it is this refusal to satisfy audience expectations that make them such breathtaking achievements. 'The Killer' functions in the same way.
We can be forgiven for expecting that David Fincher making a film about a hitman would return us to the heights of 'Se7en', much as we felt in the lead-up to 'Zodiac, and many will be disappointed that 'The Killer' is even further from the gothic opera of 'Se7en' than 'Zodiac' is. But 'Se7en' is a young man's film, and Fincher comes to this story of violence with more years of experience and greater perspective. He's less so Mills now as he is Somerset, looking at violence, not as something to be enthralled by but as something to be exhausted by. The greatest surprise with 'The Killer' is in how banal it is, purposefully banal. The lead-ups to the bursts of violence might be exquisite, but the moments themselves always feel strangely disappointing, and that is on purpose. In much the same way that Michael Haneke denies the audience their sick satisfaction with the perfunctory violence in 'Funny Games' (1996), so too does Fincher deny us the Bourne-style thrills we expect from a hitman thriller, and by doing so, highlighting our complicity in on-screen violence. In the same way he upended the airport thriller with 'Dragon Tattoo' and 'Gone Girl', he does the same here.
The temptation would be to see 'The Killer' as a piece of self-reflection, that The Killer himself is Fincher, a man known for being overwhelmingly pedantic. To an extent, that might be the case, but if it is so, then it's Fincher poking fun at himself. At its core (just as is the case with 'Fight Club' and 'Gone Girl'), 'The Killer' is a very black comedy, and its funniest moments come with how preposterously pedantic The Killer is (like the Bacon and Egg McMuffin) and how deeply confused and flummoxed he is when something doesn't go as he planned. Perhaps if the film boils down to a single idea, it's the absurdity of living life wanting total control, expecting everything to proceed as planned. If Fincher is commenting on his own filmmaking practices, then he's doing so with his tongue firmly in his cheek. The Killer is a ridiculous human being, and sure, maybe he's a cypher for Fincher himself, but I think that's probably too simplistic a read.
Fincher's films have become opaque, even difficult, refusing to offer the audience the satisfying experience they expect but instead forcing us into uncomfortable places, questioning what we wanted in the first place and why we should have wanted it.
What's important is to look at the film within the context of Fincher's filmography and how it enters into conversation with his other films. We often overlook how much of a humanist Fincher is, how deeply and deceptively emotional his work is. There's always a deep emotional core beneath the veneer of coldness, and the same exists here in 'The Killer'. Even though The Killer defines himself by a mantra of control and composure, the film wouldn't work if we didn't see that veneer start to crack, and that comes when his work follows him home. We never see what this man is like in the safety of his home with his partner, but his need to protect it manifests in the all-consuming revenge he feels the need to enact. At the same time though, that need to express is at total war with the nature he has developed for himself, and you can see at the film's most precise emotional moments the questions this man must ask himself about what he has lost in the pursuit of perfection. One of the film's finest scenes sees him sharing a drink with The Expert (Tilda Swinton, 'Suspiria'), one of the characters he encounters in his pursuit for revenge. He sits there, a silent concrete block of rage, while she enjoys a delicious meal and many glasses of fine whisky. Even though they work in similar circles, she has more of a grasp of life than he does. In fact, every single character we meet in 'The Killer', despite only having one scene, comes with a sense of who they are and the life they live... except The Killer himself. He is nothingness in the guise of a German tourist.
Another reading one could apply to the film is that, like Wes Anderson's extraordinary 'Asteroid City', we are seeing Fincher grapple with the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, that the film is about the feeling of being forced to relinquish your sense of control and the horror of the unknown. There's also a potential to read into the film a commentary on fragile toxic masculinity, something that has been a recurring theme in (I would argue) all of Fincher's films. I'm sure, the more I revisit this film, the more interpretations I'll find. That's the great power of Fincher as a filmmaker, and particularly Fincher at this stage of his career - he's not interested in definitive interpretations. He's interested in questions, in taking an audience to an uncomfortable place and leaving them there, throwing them a tiny torch to help them find their way back. 'The Killer' feels as unknowable as the blank face of Michael Fassbender, who could not have been more perfectly cast in this film - you aren't entirely sure what this film is, but you can see the mechanisms ticking behind its eyes, perfectly calibrated, and you can't take your eyes away, determined to understand what infernal force is making all the cogs and wheels move.
This is perfectly summed up in the film's final moments. Another recurring theme in Fincher's work is the meticulous, inevitable slide towards the abyss, where his characters are left facing themselves and the nothingness ahead of them - Mark Zuckerberg left in purgatory, Amy and Nick Dunn in the pit together forever, Lisbeth Salender forgotten, Mank left with nothing but his principles, literally everyone at the end of 'Zodiac'. The Killer has also been brought to the abyss by the end of this film, but what he feels about it, we don't know. Hell, maybe he's been there the whole time and he's living that oft-quoted Nietzsche adage of becoming the abyss you stared too long into. This links back to the opaque nature of Fincher's work and the refusal to leave us fully satisfied. We want the big moment of revenge, we want the catharsis. But Fincher isn't interested in catharsis - his greatest film, 'Zodiac', is about the impossibility of catharsis in real life. His films may end, but something lingers, something unresolved. Some audiences may find this frustrating. For me though, this is one of the aspects of Fincher's work I respect and love the most.
It must be said though that, for how complex and idiosyncratic 'The Killer' is, it's also a tremendous piece of entertainment. The tension is wielded like a weapon, each meticulous set-piece is delicious in its precision, the performances are outstanding across the board (not only a luminous Swinton, but equally wonderful Charles Parnell, Arliss Howard and Kerry O'Malley), and Walker's screenplay is consistently very funny. Fassbender has always seemed a much better fit for these kinds of strange oddballs, and The Killer feels very much in the same family as David from 'Prometheus' and 'Alien: Covenant'. Fincher knows how to create cinematic pulp better than anyone, and 'The Killer' feels most akin to his best piece of popular pulp, 'Panic Room'. It may take a while to realise that he wants you to find this whole thing a bit ridiculous, but once you clock into that sense of the absurd, the film becomes all the more enthralling, and the less lazy satisfaction it denies you, the more you want to bask in it.
Built with the precision of the greatest watch ever sold in an expensive men's magazine, 'The Killer' is a deliciously banal, outrageously pedantic slice of preposterous pulp, so meticulously constructed that it transcends to the ridiculous. On so many levels, it acts as a form of self-critique, of the audience's expectations of character, empathy and violence, and the futility of pursuing total control. When that control is lost, the chaos is frightening, but when it is maintained and no surprises emerge, there's nothing there except emptiness. Like so many of Fincher's films, it moves inexorably towards the abyss, and like so many of Fincher's characters, the protagonist's feelings towards the abyss are opaque and mysterious. Something has been worked through here. A breath has been taken, a series of questions have been asked, and like the best works of art to ask such questions, the echo of them is left ringing in your ears.
It's also just a lot of fuckin' fun.