Like the “Jeanne Dielman” of assassin movies, “The Killer” centers on how the self-started glitches in one character’s routine cause their carefully ordered world to fall slowly off its axis. David Fincher’s sleek if small genre exercise plants us into the orbital sockets of an unnamed killer-for-hire, played by Michael Fassbender, whose self-deceptions catch up to him amid a contract job gone just about an inch wrong in Paris.
There are few surprises in this straight-line thriller, well-executed within a millimeter of its life as ever by the “Gone Girl” and “Social Network” director. Here, the perfectionist, you-might-say-control-freak director punches up a nimbly sketched screenplay by “Seven” scribe Andrew Kevin Walker that evokes no sympathy for its protagonist, played with Zen-cool by a no-pulse Fassbender.
There’s nothing unexpected here. But watching a master filmmaker and a masterful actor quietly — and very quietly, this movie operates at an almost ASMR-level of soothing when not punctuated by bursts of graphic violence — go to work on a by-the-numbers revenge rampage story is never a bad thing.
“The Killer” owes as much to Masahiro Shinoda’s “Pale Flower” and Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samouraï” as it does to Gavin O’Connor’s mainstream procedural “The Accountant.” This is Fincher at his most accessible, and it’s not hard to see why he’s hat-tipped Steven Soderbergh’s own elegant B-thriller “Haywire” in casting that film’s star, Fassbender, for this uncomplicated crime tale.
What elevates “The Killer” into the more philosophical echelons of past Fincher joints is Fassbender’s angsty unreliable narration. The actor tells it in his calm baritone, dropping us into metaphysical musings over the differences between skepticism and cynicism and the innate lack of goodness in humanity. Deepening our position inside The Killer’s morally empty void, Fincher and his editors also play with cuts and diegetic sound diabolically, cranking up anxiety and discomfort as what we hear doesn’t always match what we see.
As we learn right away, Fassbender’s The Killer is a yoga-doing, meditating sharpshooter rarely beset by vicissitudes. So when they start getting thrown his way after a botched job, no amount of The Smiths on a loop can soothe him. Yes, as if Fassbender’s sardonic pervasive voiceover weren’t moody enough, The Killer also listens to the English ‘80s rock band to come down from the rush of a kill — or to get in the mood for one. In that sense, The Killer is like many of us, making the morbid croon of Morrissey his go-to in times of crisis, a sonic valium drip to the soul.
Camped out in an abandoned top-story WeWork in Paris with nothing but a space heater and a folding chair, The Killer sets his snipe on a man in a hotel room across the street for reasons we, nor he, ever know (and not asking is part of The Killer’s way). But he deviates from his routine by firing before his pulse drops to 60 (also part of his personal manifesto) and juuuust misses his target enough to kill a sex worker who’s also in the room instead. We’re meant to believe from The Killer’s narration that this is maybe his first mistake on the job ever, but the trustworthiness of his internal monologue starts to wash away as the film glides on and becomes increasingly rote in the process.
Still, “The Killer” remains a tense ride even if in a low automatic gear. Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (who won an Oscar for Fincher’s black-and-white “Mank”) zip through the streets of Paris as The Killer, on a motorbike, flees the scene and disposes of his killing implements, tossing his backpack into a garbage truck stopped along its route. But the fallout of his error is grave and swift.
Jetting to his brutalist hideaway in the Dominican Republic on a pseudonym — his real name doesn’t interest Fincher anyway because The Killer’s identity is mutable, never fixed in place, and mostly nonexistent at all — The Killer arrives to find the place in bloody shambles, and his girlfriend brutalized in the hospital. She’s the casualty of his fuck-up, tracked down by goons relating to the Paris job, and so here is yet another mess to clean. A puzzle piece missing here is how The Killer maintains such a sociopathic view of humanity alongside any relationships at all. He’s a lonely island of a man in a world with too many people — and it doesn’t matter what one person did to be so hated to earn a hit on their heads, he’s just here to do the job neatly.
But those days are done, and “The Killer” vaults over the assassin movie setup and into an international revenge manhunt, hopping from Santa Domingo to New Orleans and Cleveland as Fassbender leaves many unnecessary bodies strewn on the side of the road in search of those responsible for the attack. Everything is inevitable, narratively speaking, from the moment The Killer confronts his employer (Charles Parnell) with a nail gun to when he points a gun under the table at a pixie-haired Tilda Swinton, the second-to-last stop on his revenge tour.
The Killer becomes his own worst enemy as he starts to improvise. One of his maxims is “never improvise,” and yet he just can’t help himself, wrinkling the fabric of the order of things now and then. Fassbender’s subtle modulations to his performance, in the slightest of smiles or tilts of the head, as The Killer’s already gossamer asceticism falls apart remind you of the greatness of an actor who once made you care about a sentient android with no discernible soul in “Prometheus.”
Fincher is similarly in a more improvisatory spirit than ever, occasionally taking his camera off the dolly and going handheld in certain scenes as if possessed by The Killer’s own disarraying ego. One of the protagonist’s targets on the road to revenge is an off-his-leash crazy man in Florida who puts up quite an impressive fight. “The Killer” pummels us with action in a dimly lit nighttime melee as nerve-shredding as it is dizzying, and where a cheese grater nearly becomes Fassbender’s weapon of choice. But the off-the-rails violence is still as balletic and beautiful as Amazing Amy Dunne slashing open Neil Patrick Harris’ throat in “Gone Girl.”
“The Killer” is nothing if not committed to its own one-note bit, an existential nihilism that stays the same even as the protagonist, in a mostly silent Michael Fassbender performance, starts to change. It’s as unfeeling as any Fincher thriller, at once predictable in its simplicity but also strangely daring because of it.
“The Killer” premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival. Netflix releases it in theaters on Friday, October 27 before the film streams on Friday, November 10.