It’s been three years since David Fincher’s last movie, and almost ten since his last good one. In many ways, his departure from mainstream filmmaking for prestige TV in the mid ’10s was one of the watershed moments in modern cinema. One of the most reliably bankable big name directors of mid-budget prestige thrillers ceding mainstream ground in the multiplex helped catalyze the overwhelming dominance of AAA action comedies and comic book adaptations. The Killer will be distributed by Netflix but it will see the inside of theatres, as we dare hope cinema is poised for a resurgence in popularity, as the trends that fueled these changes start dying off. It’s the kind of stylish, mid-budget, realist-but-pulpy adult thriller that Fincher’s absence from the big screen left us so missing.
Of course, it isn’t just poised as its director’s triumphant comeback, but that of its star too. By the mid ’10s Michael Fassbender had one of the most enviable career trajectories in Hollywood. The Oscar nominee had conquered the arthouse scene with his collaborations with Steve McQueen and Andrea Arnold, and the multiplex with his blockbuster roles in the flagship X-Men and Alien franchises. However, fortunes quietly turned against him. The X-Men movies died a slower death than anyone seemed to want, Ridley Scott’s ill-advised Alien prequels petered out too, another franchise bid failed with Assassin’s Creed, Oscar-bait drama The Light Between Oceans failed to gain many fans and in 2017, he starred in no less than three worst film of the year contenders, the all time series low Alien: Covenant, infamous disaster The Snowman, which had its own nail to put in the coffin of mid-budget adult thrillers and Song to Song, the worst received film of Terence Malick’s career. This, combined with the alleged domestic assault charged raised against him, left a once justly lauded actor an understandably hard sell.
For better or worse, The Killer, which premiered at the 2023 London Film Festival, turns Fassbender’s anti-charisma to its benefit. It’s the same trick Fincher pulled with Ben Affleck in Gone Girl. Fassbender’s cast as a nameless (or rather, many named) corporate assassin whose opening voiceover waxes at length about his cynical worldview and meticulous methodology. But, his callous composure slowly begins to crack when he makes a (presumably) fatal mistake and misses his target. Yes, it’s a “master of tradecraft forced to go rogue when his employers betray him” movie, though probably the best one ever made…maybe? Not a high bar admittedly, but still, Fincher is Fincher and he can direct the hell out of a movie. Taking a thin, pretty nothing-y story like this one and teasing electric atmosphere out of it, mining it deep for the driest of gallows humor as our anti-hero works his way through the mundane East coast underworld, tying off any loose end he can find.
Fassbender’s killer is such a cliche, but just a soupçon of self-awareness is all that’s needed to turn this bug into a feature. Sure, some will still watch this and think, “wow, what a cool, tortured badass!” while the rest of us think “wow…what a creepy little weirdo”, as he stalks around in his porkpie hat and sleep deprivation listening to The Smiths and making dry film noir quips to himself. Yes, he just might be the most relatable hitman ever put to screen. The deft humor underpinning the storytelling and wry use of voiceover is what really elevates The Killer from the mundane to the exciting.
The story itself is hardly worth getting into, it’s basic stuff and one does wonder what Fincher saw in it. I guess this is the man who made The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Mank, so I suppose he doesn’t have the most discerning taste, and if anyone is going to make a great film out of material this pedestrian it’s going to be him. Does he manage it? Pretty much. It does come to a “so that’s it?” anticlimax and as far as actual character development or subtextual themes, you won’t yourself looking in vain but you may wind up wishing there was more to chew on. The Killer’s a contingency obsessed monster being forced into a corner, driven to embrace spontaneous action, risk-taking and personal responsibility. I wish the film went further with these ideas, showing us what happens when someone obsessed with control starts to lose that sense of order, but it doesn’t take this idea through to any sort of satisfying conclusion.
The draw here is the intensity of Fincher’s storytelling, his intoxicating style and efficiency, he’s the perfect director for a story about someone obsessed with controlling their surroundings and the way he handles the film’s tone via the sound design—he’s once again assembled the dream team of Ren Klyce, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross—cinematography and editing is a display of filmmaking fundamentals that’s exhilarating and enrapturing. It’s hard to be bored for a second watching The Killer, so intent in its commitment to entertaining you and keeping you glued to your seat. You might not be that invested by our not-very-likable antihero’s revenge crusade, but it’s hard to deny how compelling it is to watch.