David Fincher has tried his hand at blockbuster franchises, epic melodramas, and Oscar-friendly biopics, but the director is best known for sleek, unnerving thrillers. He’s the premier genre specialist of his generation, and his latest release, “The Killer,” sees him play to his thematic and stylistic strengths. To a fault, some might say. While “The Killer” has received mostly positive reviews, some have derided the film for its emotional coldness and bleak sense of humor. Whether or not these criticisms hold weight is up to the reader, but what stands out is how eerily similar they are to the criticisms leveled at Fincher’s 1999 cult classic “Fight Club.”
On the surface, “The Killer” and “Fight Club” are polar opposites. The former is about a hitman (Michael Fassbender) who plots revenge against an employer who tries to have him killed, and the latter is about an office worker (Edward Norton) who inadvertently starts a terrorist group for dissatisfied men—one driven by clarity and purpose, the other driven by chaos and boredom. However, closer inspection reveals a like-mindedness that suggests these two films would make for an exceptional double feature.
Both protagonists narrate their films, bringing viewers into their specific, compromised headspace. Neither have a proper name and are simply referred to by the functions they perform within the story, i.e., “The Killer” and “The Narrator.” This is not coincidental. By stripping them of names, Fincher is making it clear that these men lack the tools needed for basic human connection. They enact what they think to be normal behavior, but in truth, their sociopathy alienates them from every other person in their orbit. They’re not after a pleasant interaction; they’re after the illusion of a pleasant interaction.
This all sounds very bleak, but Fincher’s satirical eye makes it hilarious. He knows that his chosen protagonists are sociopaths at best and murdering psychopaths at worst, and he leans into the absurd problems that surface due to their psychological blind spots. The Killer is irritated when his plan to torture a lawyer results in death sooner than he predicted. The Narrator in “Fight Club” is so deluded that he develops a macho alter ego to enact his rage fantasies. Both men falter in the execution of their plans, and yet, by virtue of them being the characters driving the narrative, we subconsciously want them to succeed. Fincher makes the viewer complicit by involving us in the characters’ devious plans, which stands in direct contrast to the heroic yet failed efforts of the protagonists in “Seven” (1995), “Zodiac” (2007), and the bulk of the director’s filmography.
Andrew Kevin Walker deserves some of the credit (or blame). The screenwriter is best known for penning the aforementioned “Seven,” but he also did uncredited work on Fincher’s “The Game” (1997) and “Fight Club.” The duo officially reunited for “The Killer” (Walker adapted the script from the French graphic novel series of the same name), and despite taking two decades off, the two men have not lost any of their creative synergy. If anything, they managed to fine-tune their process to reflect an era increasingly reliant on isolation and automation.Take, for example, the scene in which the Killer stalks his final target. He finds, with comic ease, that he can get everything he needs on his iPhone. He spots a gym bag and walks to the nearest gym using Google Maps. He inspects the security of his target’s apartment building and is able to purchase a card copier on Amazon. The graphics for these services appear on the screen, highlighting our familiarity with both of them and underlining the fact that we also have the tools to enact a global killing spree at the touch of our fingertips. “Fight Club” had IKEA catalogs and Apple computers, “The Killer” has WeWork spaces and Amazon lockers. These are technically product placements, but how they’re used to deepen the themes of both films blurs the lines between advertising and artistry.
The reason these two films work so well in tandem, however, is that they ultimately reach different conclusions. The Narrator and his alter ego are enacting a power fantasy, and until things go haywire in the final act, there’s an escalating sense of self-importance. The Killer has no such illusions. He knows he’s not special and even refers to himself as “one of the many.” These men feel disconnected from the society they’ve been birthed into. Still, the Narrator wants the glory of having overpowered it, and the Killer simply wants the comfort of having circumvented it. “Fight Club” ends with the Narrator looking out of the window of a high-rise building as nearby structures collapse. “The Killer” ends with the titular character in a nearly identical high-rise, but instead of enacting mass destruction, he threatens his target and leaves without a trace. There’s no bloodshed or bombs, just a spooked billionaire in a cardigan and a Sub Pop t-shirt (a caricature in line with Fincher’s depiction of the tech world in “The Social Network“).
It’s tempting to draw comparisons between Fincher and his exacting protagonists. The director is rightfully celebrated for his bold style, yet his CV is littered with music videos and commercials that propagate the very consumerism he critiques in his narratives. “Fight Club” tries to reckon with these contradictions by mocking both sides and while effective, the decision to do so has allowed the film to become a sort of Rorschach test for viewers. You will get the message you want out of “Fight Club,” whether it be a parody of masculine rage or an indictment of “The Man” and modern culture. This broadness has become the very thing that’s led Fincher to distance himself from the film’s cult reputation. “I’m not responsible for how people interpret things,” he recently told The Guardian. “Language evolves. Symbols evolve.”
“The Killer” is a better film, in my estimation, because it sees Fincher take a sharper approach to the same dilemma. It works on a literal, genre level and a metatextual, metaphorical level. If we were to liken the director to the titular Killer, we would see a man who understands the risks and compromises needed to operate within a high-risk profession and ultimately uses the structures in place to achieve his personal goals. If you can’t beat ’em, use ’em. It’s a finesse that the Killer manages to pull off beautifully, and given that Fincher has just made another violent, idiosyncratic (and trending) thriller on Netflix’s dime, we could easily say the same about him. He’s “one of the few” capable of having their cake and eating it too.
Have you seen “The Killer” yet? If so, what did you think? Do you agree with the comparisons made in this piece? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out our current Oscar predictions for “The Killer” here.