When David Fincher makes a new movie, folks tend to sit up and take notice.
What’s interesting about The Killer, Fincher’s new Netflix collaboration featuring Michael Fassbender as an unnamed assassin, is how it doesn’t feel like an event. It’s “just” a lean, mean, effective thriller, albeit a well-made, well-acted, and fantastically sound designed one.
The film is divided into six parts – the first dedicated to a Paris job that doesn’t go as planned, and the following five depicting the revenge-fuelled fall-out.
The opening is a slow, drawn-out character study as the titular Killer (Fassbender) is introduced passing the days in an under construction floor facing an expensive hotel. He’s patient, meticulous, and lives by a few simple mantras (that repeat throughout the film). It’s evident from both his regiment and his sparse voice-over that he’s one of the world’s best assassins, principally because he doesn’t miss.
Until he does.
After a hasty, but controlled escape from Paris, The Killer retreats to a safe house in the Dominican Republic. By the time he arrives, however, his work has followed him home and now includes collateral damage in the form of his girlfriend, Magdala (Sophie Charlotte). These events send him off-book in an attempt to uncover all of the parties responsible and seek revenge.*
*The most contemporary comparison is undoubtedly Kill Bill, although frequent Fincher collaborator Andrew Kevin Walker employs a much more straight forward, linear narrative for his adaptation of Matz Nolent and Luc Jacamon‘s comic of the same name.
Each of the film’s subsequent parts finds The Killer dealing with a new target in a new destination, including Chicago, New Orleans, rural Florida, and the outskirts of New York. For the most part Fassbender is flying solo onscreen, engaged in methodical activities such as driving, sleeping, acquiring materials, and plotting his next move.
The repetition is never boring, though. Although The Killer purposefully has no name (and by extension no true identity) Fassbender plays the man with steely resolve and keen determination. He’s something of a Terminator: once he sets his mind to a mission, nothing will stand in his way.
Those “nothings” are, of course, his targets, including character actors like Charles Parnell as Hodges, “The Lawyer” who brokered all of the hits, and Arliss Howard‘s The Client, the billionaire who instigated the whole enterprise.
Audiences are most likely to latch onto the film’s two female characters of note: Kerry O’Malley as Dolores, Hodges’ secretary, and Tilda Swinton as another assassin. The former is swept up in something much larger than her 9 to 5 and O’Malley shines in a brief performance that gives the film a great deal of its humanity. She’s something of an audience proxy, particularly the way she reacts to the heightened reality of assassins and vendettas.
Swinton, meanwhile, does exactly what you’d expect from the award-winning actress. Armed with her trademark peroxide blonde do and exuding opulence, Swinton’s The Expert is cool, calm, and professional. Leave it to the British actor to show up late in the film and completely dominate the narrative for an extravagant ~10 minute sequence that requires Fassbender to do little more than react.
It’s a tough act to follow, and the last act of The Killer struggles by comparison. Walker’s film has something of a muted, almost anticlimactic finish, which is exactly the point (the film has mostly refused catharsis and sentimentality), though it doesn’t entirely satisfy as a big finish.
Aside from Fincher’s typically crisp direction and cinematography, The Killer‘s most notable element is its soundtrack (comprised entirely of The Smiths songs) and, in particular, sound design. Expect Ren Kylce‘s absolutely exquisite work on the latter to factor into awards chatter; the use of sound in The Killer is practically a character unto itself. This is never more evident than in the anticipation leading up to (and execution of) the action sequences, including the Paris assassination that acts as inciting incident.
The way the film alternates between quietly contemplative, almost zen-like down time and bombastic, adrenaline-pumping violence is a key selling feature and Fincher, editor Kirk Baxter and Kylce’s sound design really make the film shine in those moments. See also: the film’s biggest action sequence in Florida, which features an all-out brawl with The Brute (Sala Baker) that is preceded by…The Killer sleeping in his car.
Audiences expecting a complicated, moody masterpiece will undoubtedly find The Killer a bit slight because it is “just” a straightforward thriller. Taking that concession into account, however, the film is a lean, often brutal globe-trotting adventure with a solid performance by Fassbender and stand-out sound design. It’s worth checking out. 4/5
The Killer is streaming on Netflix Nov 10