Vague Visages’ The Killer review contains minor spoilers. David Fincher’s 2023 Netflix movie features Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton and Charles Parnell. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Assassin films are a hot commodity, as the John Wick franchise is a testament to how much bloodshed viewers are willing to endure. But for director David Fincher, the challenge of his latest crime film wasn’t to orchestrate an enduring spectacle, but rather to create a well-choreographed character study, and the American filmmaker succeeds. Loosely based on Alexis “Matz” Nolent’s critically acclaimed graphic novel series, The Killer starts with a nameless assassin (Michael Fassbender) ritualistically preparing for a routine murder. Simple enough, right? Yet, like a star wide receiver that fumbles a catch in the end zone, The Killer drops the ball. When avenging the retaliatory measures which ensue following his blunder, the actions of Fassbender’s antihero take on an animated purpose while remaining somewhat matter of fact. At no point does Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay for The Killer measure up to the likes of Fight Club (1999), Zodiac (2007) or the comic book source materials, but neither does it impede Fincher’s hyperbolic attention to detail and ability to create mephistophelian set pieces worthy of the film’s ominous title.
“I am what I am,” remarks The Killer during the introductory prologue. For Fincher, such dialogue is characteristic of the maestro’s proscenium filmmaking. And it’s in this regard that the skeletal structure of The Killer emerges as the next logical step for the director. No longer held in check by the construct of three acts, Fincher is at liberty to create a pace that’s more akin to a real day in the life of an assassin and not another Jason Bourne knockoff. There’s an immersive thrill in watching The Killer scope out cityscapes, ala Rear Window (1954), and becoming confident in his Parisian surroundings, only to have the rug pulled out from under him and be thrown into a nightmarish hellscape. And what a Kafkaesque scenario it is, with individuals receiving fatal nail puncture wounds to the chest, neck snapping in an unflinching manner, proximity shots to the face (no cutting) and one of the most gruesomely conceived fight sequences in recent memory. Fincher employs tactile precision and eye-popping monochromatic colors, allowing Netflix viewers to see heinous acts play out in dark shadows. What truly makes this revenge procedural such a nerve-wracking experience is not the content itself but its execution. Just as with Fight Club, Fincher leaves no doubt in the viewer’s mind that not only are these horrific scenarios achievable but also economically practical. Still, attention to detail can only take one so far; films of this nature need an actor who can strike a chord. Fortunately, Fassbender is more than up for the challenge.
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It is only fitting that Fassbender teams up with a gallows humor director like Fincher to create a character that’s more inanimate than human. The actor similarly played the role of an eccentric killer android named David in Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant (2017) and masterfully achieved a borderline sociopathic reinterpretation of Steve Jobs in Danny Boyle’s eponymous 2015 film with words that are verbal daggers unto themselves.
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Evidencing commitment to every aspect of his profession, The Killer explains his German tourist wardrobe, which is complete with a bucket hat that’s certain to safeguard his isolation and safety. Though Fassbender’s character speaks few words and lives by the fastidious guidelines of his assassin trade, he isn’t suave like Jef Costello (Alan Delon) of Le Samouraï (1967) — an antihero who exemplifies and inhabits a world of ceremony and reverence while wearing trench coats and razor-sharp fedoras. The Killer, by comparison, is none of those things. His world is purely logistical: show up to do the job, wait, maybe do a little bit of exercise but nothing that constitutes ceremony. The Killer’s practical clothes afford him no mythical advantage. Although Fassbender’s character does stick to a noir code of sorts, his ways are more regimen than evidence of a sense of morality.
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Don’t expect any supporting actor or actress Oscar nominations for The Killer. While there is nothing flawed with the portrayal of the killer’s girlfriend (Sophie Charlotte as Magdala), The Lawyer (Charles Parnell) and The Brute (Sala Baker), the performers carry out the lines and story action as expected. Tilda Swinton’s performance of The Expert fosters a touch of class and dimension to the title character’s interchanges, though he quickly reverts to formulaic action, rendering the conversation with Swinton’s character to seem out of place.
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Noteworthy is the clever way the title character’s internal monologue intermixes with The Killer’s diegetic score. The vertical sound editing of mixer Ren Klyce is second to none, and the interlacing of Fassbender’s voice with the steel iron fidelity of The Smiths and the high tactile accuracy of the antihero’s sniper rifle translates to stellar music editing. It ranks up there with the usage of “Immigrant Song” in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011).
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The main issue with The Killer’s story is not the plot but the occasional stumbling in narrative flow and repetition in delivery of information. While there are exciting elements, it’s Fincher’s intentional monotony that feels wearisome at times. One may say that the director’s best films carry audiences on a cerebral journey through moments of self-realization and profound enlightenment. In the case of Fight Club, viewers see the dangers of commoditization and toxic masculinity. But what about The Killer? Is it a commentary on post-late-stage capitalism? Is Fincher suggesting that society is soulless? Probably not. Ultimately, The Killer is just a fun, pulpy romp that is more akin to the plug-and-play adventures of I.O. Interactive’s Hitman series than a profound statement on the culture at large. And similar to the Hitman series, Fincher’s latest Netflix film is structured episodically. One can almost perceive how The Killer could evolve into a series unto itself, especially since the film’s ending feels like an abrupt coda. But unless a potential franchise packs the viscerally cinematic punch of a director like Fincher, it’s probably best to let Fassbender’s hitman retire.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.
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