The perennial theme of the hitman is so of the zeitgeist at the moment that just in this year’s Venice edition there are three films with the figure of the assassin as protagonist. Harmony Korine’s Aggro Dr1ft, Richard Linklater’s Hitman and now David Fincher’s The Killer join a culture neck-deep in John Wicks and Equalizers, Black Widows and Liam Neesons.
Pulling on the rubber gloves, assembling his sniper rifle and screwing the silencer to the end of his Glock this time around is Michael Fassbender, an actor who has rehearsed the role somewhat taking his licks in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. We first meet Fassbender in Paris where he is hanging around waiting for his quarry to reveal himself and allow him a clean shot. Dealing with boredom is part of the job, he tells us in a laconic voiceover. He does his yoga, listens to The Smiths on his headphones and goes over his philosophy of life.
“The Killer” – who has many names but no one name – might be glacially silent on the outside but he’s a right old chatterbox on the inside: funny at times, but also glib in his philosophising of what he does. His mantra of do’s and don’ts are many and, because we’ve already seen this film over a hundred times, we know that most of these are going to be broken before the end credits run. The first gag is, of course, that after over ten minutes of talk about killing, The Killer fluffs his job and the film kicks into gear: the sound of never-to-be-broken rules being broken becomes deafening.
The rest of The Killer is broken into a series of chapters, all based on different locations and targets as our MVP goes from city to city trying to clean up the mess and get revenge for the blowback that has come his way. Or, has come the way of the person he loves and who stands as the objective correlative for him having a spark of humanity rather than being an actual character. But characters are not really important here. Not as important as the costumes (always crisply new), the guns that fit snugly in the foam of the briefcase, the ziplock plastic envelopes of passports and identities, and the storage facilities that look like the happy place of a sociopathic Marie Kondo. We’ve come a long way from Alain Delon’s dirty birdcage and empty room in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai.
The appeal to the Zodiac and Se7en director of the cold, meticulous, perfectionist killer for whom human empathy is weakness and the universe a cold indifferent place is obvious to anyone who knows his work. Although the text of Fincher’s films involves the journey of alienated men towards some vestige of redeeming humanity – see The Game, Fight Club and The Social Network – the subtext and main pleasure is the alienation itself. We want our gunsights and loneliness; we enjoy listening to The Smiths, even though it does us no good as human beings. Fincher is a master at this. Few American directors capture the contemporary urban nightscape as well as Fincher: a supreme genre filmmaker, which makes this perfectly fine film so disappointing.
Always best when he’s playing an oddball loner or an outright villain, Fassbender looks lean and mean, but for all his monologuing he has the depth of a non-player character. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a mission gone right. It certainly has its moments – Tilda Swinton has a late appearance as a fellow pro – but The Killer feels like a Netflix film through and through, down to the kick-ass title sequence. Although Fincher always gives good title sequence: he is, after all, a professional.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty