THE STORY – Solitary, cold, methodical and unencumbered by scruples or regrets, a killer waits in the shadows, watching for his next target. Yet, the longer he waits, the more he thinks he’s losing his mind, if not his cool.
THE CAST – Michael Fassbender, Arliss Howard, Charles Parnell, Kerry O’Malley, Sala Baker, Sophie Charlotte & Tilda Swinton
THE TEAM – David Fincher (Director) & Andrew Kevin Walker (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 118 Minutes
Few people know how to assemble a thriller quite like David Fincher. Ever since the beginning of his career with works like “Se7en” and “The Game,” the man has had a keen understanding of what draws an audience into a web of intrigue, determined to discover what secrets are to be revealed on the other end. It’s a testament to his strengths that even when he may occasionally steer into more prestigious subject matter, the pulpy background rooted in procedural investigation is what he truly excels at delivering. That’s what makes “The Killer” feel like somewhat of a return to form for Fincher, and it’s another highly engaging work, even if it doesn’t strive for too much beneath the surface.
The titular character (Michael Fassbender) can only be known as such because he purposefully has no identity, as meticulously explained by him in precise detail through a voiceover. He describes his carefully constructed mannerisms and the guiding philosophy of how emotionally detached he must be in order to achieve the desired results. During one of these outings, the mission does not go according to plan. A moment of bad luck causes him to fail, which then prompts retaliation for his contractors. This sets him down a path to discover all those who have sought to eliminate him and the ones he loves, and heaven help those who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in his crosshairs.
As mentioned, Fincher’s reputation is known for being a master craftsman, and the same attention can be seen here. From the very first moments, one is treated to a barrage of sequences that showcase how this assassin prepares for a job in exact steps. It can almost be a parallel to Fincher’s own perfectionism, and once again, the filmmaking bears that out. The crisp cinematography captures the harsh and cold mentality that is omnipresent in the air. The slick editing showcases the orderly checklist, as well as the chaos that ensues when things go belly up. The sound design, both the effects work and the Reznor and Ross score, expertly craft the consistent level of tension in every frame. All these elements, it should be noted, are not necessarily exceptional in regard to Fincher’s filmography. They all are reminiscent of similar demonstrations in the past. However, they are just as effective here. There is even some occasional innovation, such as more use of the handheld camera to signify the protagonist’s more frantic state of mind in certain moments. This comes to great use in an absolutely brutal fight scene in which every punch seems to land with a literal visceral impact.
Speaking of reminiscing about Fincher’s past work, this also sees him re-teaming with Andrew Kevin Walker, the same writer of “Se7en.” Adapted from the graphic novel series of the same name, it becomes apparent that the story here is not meant for deep thematic analysis. It is efficiently told with a clean throughline, but it’s quite apparent that this narrative is only meant to be enjoyed for surface-level entertainment. That is not an inherently negative connotation, but it often leaves the more interesting aspects to make this a more compelling piece of storytelling unfulfilled. The inciting incident that sparks the killer’s rampage is an assault on his girlfriend, a character who is not introduced until her horrific injuries are shown and delivers very stale dialogue. The dialogue, for the most part, is pretty wooden, and the film succeeds far more in its silent moments. Whether a failure of the source material or the adaptation itself, the actual mechanics of the story are underserved, leaving the final results to be engrossing but only to a point.
Fassbender is consistently a captivating force here. As the individual this film revolves around, there is a natural temptation to fully give into empathy. This is a man who, after all, is seeking revenge on behalf of an innocent party who was terribly beaten. Yet, plenty of instances show his malice and cruelty when faced with those who have wronged him, no matter their level of involvement. It’s a stark reminder of his cold-blooded nature, perfectly portrayed by Fassbender’s steely gaze. He is so much of the focal point that other characters aren’t given that much to do. This isn’t really a problem for anyone outside of Tilda Swinton, playing one of the dominos he is chasing down in this chain. She, of course, is excellent in the role, but it’s only two scenes before she exits the film. One gets the sense that a performer of her immense talent deserves something more significant, which ends up being a significant disappointment.
It is tempting to advocate for “The Killer” to offer more substance, narratively speaking. The storytelling hits only the most basic of beats in its presentation, therefore limiting its value as a more well-rounded and nuanced work. At the same time, it is hardly noticeable when actually watching the film. Fincher, ever the master, still finds ways to make the material enthralling. Its heightened reality is brought forward with stellar craftsmanship, and Fassbender’s performance is an appropriate vessel. This may not demonstrate the absolute heights that Fincher can achieve. Still, it is a welcomed reminder that when it comes to gritty investigations of violent circumstances, few people can do it better.