The Killer Review | This “Charming” Man

by Andrew Parker

The Killer is a gleefully nasty, amoral, and wildly entertaining thriller that only a true filmmaking master like director David Fincher could provide. Re-teaming with screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker for the first official time since Seven (unless one counts his uncredited rewrites on the likes of The Game and Fight Club), Fincher turns The Killer into a piece of pop art; a familiar story of bloodshed and revenge that pulls inspiration from every corner of the cinematic globe. It’s cool, scuzzy, and imbued with healthy doses of thoughtfulness and coal black humour. It might not be Fincher’s best, but some might classify The Killer as a return to form. At any rate, it’s one of the director’s most entertaining efforts to date.

Michael Fassbender (a perfect leading choice for something that straddles the line between low brow entertainment and an artistic experiment) stars as a dedicated, nameless, and hyper focused hitman on what appears to be a dull, routine assassination gig in Paris. After spending days training his mind and body, musing to the viewer via voiceover that he doesn’t believe in things like karma or justice, listening to The Smiths to slow his heart rate, and going on McDonald’s runs for some cheap protein, it finally comes time to take his big shot. Things go sideways, and he’s read the riot act by his employer (Charles Parnell), but he’s ready to move on with his life. But when he returns to his house in the Dominican Republic and finds that the love of his life has been brutalized in a bid to send him a message, an intricate revenge plan is put into action.

The Killer, based on a graphic novel written by Metz (Alex Nolent) and illustrated by Luc Jacamon, has a “stop me if you’ve heard this before” premise. The idea of a professional killer out for revenge has been done pretty much to death, even if there are plenty of filmmakers out there willing to take such a well worn, often cliched story to new stylistic heights. But Fincher and Walker are determined to make The Killer into something greater than the sum of its parts, offering up something that almost parodies the action movie sub-genre while examining what makes these revenge stories so satisfying on a psychological level. It’s a lot like Albert Camus offering up a take on John Wick, but directed by someone who primarily made movies for the Times Square grindhouse crowd in the 1980s. It’s heady, deliberately trolling, and always a joy to watch.

So much of The Killer is told through gritty, over-the-top tough guy speeches and hardboiled inner thoughts that it’s clearly not a work meant to be taken seriously on a narrative level. The morality of the main character – a manly man who says he believes in nothing, yet finds himself deeply caring about the one thing that keeps him grounded – is cliched in the extreme. Fincher knows he could make this kind of action thriller in his sleep, so instead he turns his carefully attuned attention towards the subtextual elements that abound in Walker’s screenplay, leading to the filmmaker’s flat out funniest work since Fight Club.

Much like that Fight Club, The Killer feels every bit like a comment on modern society and capitalism run amok. In a society where everything is available at the snap of one’s fingertips if they have the means and savvy to get it, we’re all just a few steps away from being a heartless assassin capable of suppressing empathy and compassion. Every day, Fassbender’s assassin is faced with a series of judgment calls – to kill or not to kill, to leave or not to leave – and his decisions are purely made off of instinct and feeling. He might have a job to perform, but every decision is a snap one, no matter how much preparation. And in his line of work, snap decisions are a hazard of the job, and his ability to deal with them head on makes him an in-demand professional. But one minor slip up that seems somewhat routine, and he’s punished severely by his employers. By the character’s own admission, this killer is not a genius, but rather someone who’s very good at his job. But in his world, genius is demanded, and anything less is taken as a personal offence, even by people who constantly stress that their retaliation isn’t personal. “It’s just business.” The Killer is a film that stands up to the bullshit of that statement and refutes it by saying that all business in this day and age has become personal.

Fincher, who has never visual boring work in his life, once again offers up a visual extravaganza. Teaming once again with cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (Mank, Mindhunter) and editor Kirk Baxter (whose collaborations with Fincher stretch back to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), the filmmaker offers up a globe trotting palate that exudes coolness and menace. Whether frantically following the killer through a dangerous, near-miss situation or quietly doting on the aftermath of his actions, Fincher and his crew reach a level of visual poetry rare in genre cinema. There’s not a ton of action to be found in The Killer, which is a lot closer in tone to crime thrillers to come out of 1970s Italy and France, but whenever there has to be a chase, shoot out, or brawl, Fincher is more than happy to indulge and revel in the rough stuff. And when the film needs to capture the monotony of the killer’s job, Fincher and Walker work in tandem to make sure everything is snappy and captivating. Overall, The Killer is the most engaging hitman saga outside of the John Wick franchise, and the best overall movie to deal with such a character since Michael Mann’s Collateral.

The ending of The Killer is sure to be divisive among viewers, but it serves a key purpose: to make the viewer reconsider the psychology and morality of everything that came before it. Fincher has done his part to entertain, and now they want the viewer to piece together the decisions made along the way and what they all could mean. It’s a film so viscerally entertaining and wickedly fun that one almost doesn’t realize how it’s working on multiple levels. The Killer is smart genre filmmaking, the kind that almost doesn’t exist anymore. While it might seem at a passing glance like Fincher has taken a step backwards, The Killer is anything but that. It’s perfectly in line with the kinds of movies that made him such a phenomenon behind the camera in the first place.

The Killer opens in select theatres, including TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, on Friday, October 27, 2023. It’s available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, November 10.

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