“Are you one of the few? Or one of the many?”
This (see photo caption) is just one of many questions posed and codes elucidated in the inner monologue of Michael Fassbender‘s titular character in The Killer. A character that almost seems an avatar for David Fincher‘s directorial style, Fassbender’s hitman is someone who seemingly defines himself by his process and rules. The filmmaking of The Killer is as methodical and exacting as its dark protagonist and is one of Fincher’s most deliberate works, if not always as complex or interesting as one wants.
Fincher’s film opens as many of his recent works do: with a slick digital opening sequence featuring the throbbing score of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. We then spend the first of the film’s delineating chapters alternating between the inner thoughts of Fassbender’s assassin and a soundtrack of his favorite band, The Smiths, which he describes as helping “keep the inner voice from wandering.” In short order, Fincher’s sharp cuts, cool color palate, and discordant score establish a dark mood similar to his other works. The pure style of these opening parts of the film instantly hook you into the character, as does Fassbender’s superb performance. His opening job, an assassination in Paris, seems bound for success.
Just as the film finishes telling you how uncaring The Killer is, things go awry. The job is botched, and Fassbender is suddenly thrust into the plot of a revenge film. It’s now a film where everything the opening twenty minutes told you is slowly challenged and picked away at, and your assumptions about who the character is are left without a foundation. At least, maybe.
On its surface, most of this film sees Fassbender’s character trying to strike back against his masters for attempting to off him. At that level, this film is highly simplistic and presents few other ideas or twists. But like the Jean-Pierre Melville films this seems to pay homage to, The Killer drums up more complexity in examining its character through the lens of his actions.
Fassbender’s character often dresses up like a Caribbean tourist, with plain white clothes, Hawaiian shirts, and fedora hats disguising the monster he is. That is, if he is indeed the uncaring monster his monologue claims. Much of the film is about deception, both outer and inner. We hear The Killer’s mantras repeated throughout the film, even as action after action is taken that potentially contradicts the rules he seems so intent on following. There’s no doubt about his effectiveness, and Fincher’s methodical storytelling and direction will thrill those who enjoy the minutiae of how a hitman works in the 21st century. But as he continues to tell the audience the importance of having no empathy or pity, to always stick to the plan, and how to avoid becoming part of the masses that are controlled by others, we see time after time where the rules seem not to be followed, or not to work out.
It is the film’s genius that Fincher does not provide any definite answer on whether the rules are being broken or not. There are no ponderous explanations and it’s really only the last line of the film that provides some direct textual commentary that there are indeed contradictions afoot. In that way, the film seems a self-analysis of Fincher’s own cynicism about the world. Or as the film states it, perhaps it’s a skepticism that is often mistaken for cynicism.
Michael Fassbender’s fantastic lead performance is a large part of what helps sell the analysis. His cool, detached exterior and capacity for acting in silence, with many scenes limiting his actual dialogue to other characters, convey the dark nature of the character. He comes across as a totally believable methodical killer perfectly aligned with Fincher’s tone, and it makes one wish he had appeared in a Fincher film far sooner than now. Fassbender is a fitting avatar for the filmmaker, aiding meta-textual readings of the film.
In sum, The Killer is a welcome return for one of the better thriller directors of the 21st century. It’s been nearly ten years since Gone Girl, and for anyone looking for that itch to be scratched, The Killer provides it. It may not be as deeply intriguing and complex as that film or The Social Network, its singular focus seeming to limit its ability to offer broader commentary. Still, The Killer is a deeply stylistic dive that ends on a perfectly intriguing moment, letting you question all you saw before and making you want to hit replay right away.