Michael Fassbender kills for Money, Love, and David Fincher
DIRECTED BY DAVID FINCHER/2023
The scuttlebutt on director David Fincher’s latest cinematic Icy Hot No Mess balm, The Killer, has been that it’s a satisfyingly box-ticking potboiler- but a mere potboiler nonetheless. While this is not entirely false, it’s also not the whole truth. The Killer is nothing less than Fincher operating in the classic Hitchcock tradition. With that level of grand panache, remove, and a devilishly detailed eagerness to entertain, it is a practiced procedural with thorough doses of process, process, process- both in the filmmaking and for Michael Fassbender’s titular globetrotting hitman.
More accurately, The Killer resonates as David Fincher in Fincherland. He’s riding his favorite rides and indulging in all his favorite junk food (sans the caloric blood-sugar triggering burger buns) while galloping across the grounds proudly on a Blanton Whiskey steed. And he’s doing all of it with undeniable exactitude of a perfect ninety-degree-angle and rigid tape-measure methodology. The whole thing might be eighty percent (or more?) digital manipulation, but that’s for him to play with and us to find out about. Or not.
What’s clear this time is that, thanks to a straight-down-the-line screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker (the very screen-scribe whose swift serve of Se7en on paper set up Fincher for a career-making spike), the director may be playing some of his favorite games, but this time, his audience gets the prize. Never has beige been so sinister as it is in his pictures. The Killer begins with an extended sequence set in a beige berg of Paris, where the flagrantly wealthy settle in luxury for the night while people on the yellow-lit street wander through a nearby urban McDonald’s. Fassbender’s nameless character (yet he also has too many names, all of them false and all of them belonging to famous old TV characters) largely stays in the building across the street, which provides a perfect vantage point for picking off his next target.
This killer is a consummate professional. That is, at least, according to his frequent inner monologue. “Stick to the plan.” … “Suppress empathy.”… Empathy gives way to weakness.” In his work-in-progress construction project of a room, we’re privy to his methodology in combating the terrible boredom that comes with the job (waiting is the hardest part), as well as the almost freakish stretches he does to keep his lanky slenderman frame flexible and in shape. He uses a Fitbit to manage his pulse rate, lest a hoppity heart rate impacts his trigger pulling. He dresses subtly, as to be avoided. He wears a hat. And it’s actually him who discards the caloric blood-sugar triggering burger buns, not Fincher. (Dare we conflate the two?) This guy may be laser-focused and resigned to a life of this sort of thing, but does he really follow all of his own advice?
Something goes wrong. Then something else goes wrong. And next thing we all know, The Killer has become a revenge movie. A revenge movie on an increasingly jet-setting scale. From Paris he goes home, to the away-from-it-all Dominican Republic. Then to knuckle-dragging Florida, and New Orleans, and wherever else. The killer has six storage units, ostensibly full of all manner of handy identity altering this n’ that. The weapons are kept elsewhere. Fake license plates. High-strength disinfectant. Burner phones, burner phones. Alarms set for everything. For all this forethought and systematic thinking, sometimes a little last-minute detailing with a Sharpie has to happen. As fascinating as the buttoned-up aspects of this character are, it’s these little unsuspecting moments that make The Killer even more interesting.
Fassbender is great at all of this. For a guy who once played a character with a large fake head (Frank), playing a character with a large number of fake names feels like nothing. It’s not nothing, but Fassbender exudes naturalism amid this film’s myriad of extremes. (Did Fincher make him do dozens upon dozens of takes of everything as he has his previous actors?? It sure doesn’t register that way). One by one, the supporting cast is revealed throughout. And they’re good. Charles Parnell, Tilda Swinton, Arliss Howard, Kerry O’Malley… not a miscasting in the bunch.
Fincherland isn’t always the blast the masses might be looking for in their quest for escape. This time it is. An immaculate potboiler, yes. Its Hitchcockian spirit is apparent in the killer’s propensity to use the monikers of old TV characters for his phony I.D.s. People chuckle at that crap. Yet, why would this professional assassin who’s so meticulous in the interest of avoiding unwanted attention make a habit of using forged passports that prominently announce him as FELIX UNGER, SAM MALONE, etc.? Perhaps this injection of levity is a false move for both the killer and The Killer. It sure seems to go against his otherwise established nature. Or does it? As the film unspools (or, as the ultra hi-def cinematic video’s runtime progress bar advances), cracks in the emotionless empathy-free killer’s facade become apparent. Interesting…
Based on the French graphic novel series of the same title by Alexis “Matz” Nolent and Luc Jacamon, Fincher maintains a flair reminiscent of absorbing sequential storytelling artwork. At a glance, though, the learned viewer would instantly identify The Killer as his. It’s vintage TV-style opening titles sequence may be a tip of the hat to its primary destination, which is the online streaming living-graveyard of its benefactor Netflix, but it’s important to state that this is truly a big-screen work.
The Killer may present as a disposable entertainment ala Fincher’s own most useless film, 2002’s Panic Room, but an apt notion underlies: It’s darkly compelling to watch a hypocritical empty vessel fueled by hatred and consumed by vengeance do his thing, isn’t it? Thematically, it’s no trip to a theme park. For the killer, it’s never “kill or be killed.” It’s only ever been about making a killing.