For years since David Fincher’s breakthrough with Se7en, he’s often been seen as a stylish and even flashy director. While it’s hard to deny that subsequent films like The Game, Fight Club, Benjamin Button, The Social Network (where Fincher made college kids writing code look riveting), The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl had the aforementioned style and flash in abundance, there were earlier signs that Fincher was perhaps looking to embrace a more austere method of filmmaking.
The first hints can be found in his brilliant serial killer/journalism/police procedural take on the infamous and uncaptured serial killer, Zodiac, which was sandwiched between Panic Room and Benjamin Button. Zodiac, with its rigorous attention to detail and disinterest in conventional thrills is almost a Sidney Lumet film. For those expecting Fincher to make Se7en part 2, Zodiac may have been a disappointment due to its less pulpy and fantastical delivery.
Still, it wouldn’t be until his series Mindhunter and his historical take on the making (and particularly the writing) of Citizen Kane with Mank where we really began to see Fincher fully embrace a certain leanness in his filmmaking.
Sure, Mindhunter was also about serial killers, or more precisely, the founding of the FBI unit that created the template for understanding and tracking down serial killers, but there was a movement by Fincher to almost completely de-sensationalize a sensational subject. During the show’s far too brief two-season run, the series seemed interested only in what was worth telling with only the rarest of occasional flourishes.
Mank was even more low-key in its delivery. Still gorgeous to look at (as all Fincher films are), his take on the sad tale of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (a terrific Gary Oldman) showed almost no interest in conventional entertainment, while still somehow being a fascinating film. While Mank was nominated for ten Oscars (winning for production design and cinematography), I think a lot of Fincher fans were slightly underwhelmed by the film’s muted delivery.
One might think with Fincher’s return to pulp with Netflix’s The Killer, a tale of an assassin who breaks his own rigid, detached code to take revenge on those who injured someone he cares for after a hit he’s assigned to goes terribly wrong, might be a return to the flashy Fincher of old, but one would be very, very wrong. In many ways, The Killer is Fincher’s sleekest and most austere film yet, while remaining relentlessly cinematic.
There’s always been something about Fincher’s framing of a scene and his POV that makes you aware that only one person in the world could have made the film you’re watching. When Fincher directs, he leaves fingerprints on the celluloid.
That’s every bit as true with The Killer as it has been on all of Fincher’s films. I suppose for some, The Killer might be easier to admire than to warm to—that was my initial reaction too. The level of craft on display is staggering and the rigor of the delivery masterful. But with a lead character whose outward countenance is made no different by a horrendous attack that reaches into his personal life and sets him on a path to vengeance, one could not be blamed for perhaps feeling a bit chilly on the film.
But upon further reflection, the very fact that Michael Fassbender’s killer (and boy, is it great to see Fassbender doing such excellent work again) consistently repeating his mantra as he violates it over and over again is, in its own way, a statement of emotion, even if Fassbender isn’t giving you almost any of that characteristic outwardly.
Fassbender drains his killer of nearly all personality. He is what he does: a ruthless assassin who takes no pleasure or displeasure in his work. It’s what he’s good at, it’s just that his expertise in his profession is so high that emotion need not enter into his actions. In fact, it’s a detriment.
However, there are inklings of an inner life early on. The killer’s yoga routine (it must be said that Fassbender is incredibly bendy) speaks to a desire for inner peace. As well, one could see his constant reliance on the tunefully miserable music of The Smiths as a sort of coping mechanism.
But it’s only when the violence in his life comes to his home that we see the killer’s break from his ruthless standards take wing. Even then, Fassbender never allows his outward appearance to change as he tracks down and dismisses those who brought pain to his door. It’s a truly marvelous and even magical act that Fassbender pulls off here. While he seems emotionally unchanged, his actions say otherwise.
It’s a fascinating experience to hear the killer repeat his mantra over and over again,
“Stick to your plan
Trust no one
Stick to your plan
Stick to your plan
Anticipate – don’t improvise
Stick to your plan
Never yield an advantage
Stick to the plan
Fight only the battle you’re paid to fight”
And then watch Fassbender’s assassin violate his own code at every turn. Everything that’s going on inside of the killer stays exactly there—inside. But in action and deed, his mission of revenge speaks to an inner turmoil that is never outwardly exposed.
What I’m describing here may sound remote (and no one who might see it that way is technically wrong) and maybe even relentlessly grim. But in its own odd way, The Killer is often very, if drily, funny. The Smith’s songs, with their ironic and iconically grim outlook on life are full of wry humor of their own, such as when the band’s one of a kind vocalist, Morrissey, can be heard singing about his girlfriend in a coma who he professes to love, but doesn’t want her to wake up. (I would also be remiss when speaking of the film’s use of music, not to mention the pulsating score of longtime Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross).
The very idea that this is the music that soothes the killer inside is both a sick and very funny joke, if you like your humor pitch black. As well, there’s Fassbender’s hiding in plain sight disguise inspired by a tourist he saw in Berlin, because no one ever wants to talk to a German tourist.
And in the film’s very best scene, Fassbender faces off with the ever brilliant Tilda Swinton in a swank restaurant where Fincher allows Swinton the time to tell a very long and profane joke that made me laugh out loud when the punchline finally arrived. I suppose there are other actors who could have carried such a lengthy journey to the money line effectively, but it’s hard to imagine any who could match the verve of Swinton’s delivery.
I’ve read elsewhere that some have found The Killer to be a return to Fincher’s roots, but that characterization strikes me as overly simplistic and reductive. What Fincher has done with The Killer is taken his roots, ripped them from the ground, planted them upside down, and delivered a new way of telling a story that is every bit Fincher, but also shows new shades of simplicity and verisimilitude–proving that even after twelve mostly great films, he is still evolving as an artist.
Being Fincher, he closes the film with a bit of a wicked joke, when Fassbender suggests that maybe he, this ruthless and impersonal murderer of strangers, isn’t so unlike us. At that moment I found myself both amused and understanding of the point that all of us break with our code from time to time. Even while we are aware and internally referring to it. Of course for most of us (I hope) that code isn’t related to a profession where all outcomes are dire. But the fact that Fincher’s protagonist doesn’t see much of a difference between himself and the normals of the world is quite chilling when you get past the chuckle.
I know with a filmmaker like Fincher there’s always a desire to want to quantify where his latest film ranks in his oeuvre. My initial thought once the film faded to black was that it struck me as a mid-level work. Although, to be fair to Fincher, his “mid-level” is top-tier even for the most respected members of his profession.
But I must say, sitting here now scratching out this review, The Killer is already growing in my estimation. It’s a very deceptive film that is unusually quiet when dealing in death (save one extraordinary fight scene between Fassbender and a ‘roid raging target of his).
The Killer isn’t just eminently watchable, it’s a film that I believe will reveal more shades and layers upon each viewing. While I have yet to test that theory, I do intend to “stick to the plan.” I’ve got a strong feeling I’ll be proven right.
Originally published on Reel Reframe.