A couple of things happened while I was watching The Killer: I smiled, involuntarily, as if I were in a packed theater alone together with friends, family, and strangers seeing the new David Fincher movie; and about halfway through, when I realized I forgot to take out the trash, I paused the movie and went downstairs and went about my “business” involuntarily acting and thinking like Michael Fassbender’s titular assassin. I was methodical, precise, efficient in examining leftovers, gathering plastic for recycling, and tying everything up to go straight in the bin, an indifferent toss that Fassbender performs many times in The Killer, except he’s chucking guns and smartphones—I’m just clearing old Thai food.
Many people will “stumble upon” The Killer because it was produced and distributed by Netflix. Their mileage may vary. Fincher’s second film with the Satanic streamer is another considerable technical achievement with some of the best digital night photography in recent American cinema. More than 15 years after going digital for the first time with Zodiac, Fincher has mastered the craft, and The Killer is his ultimate demonstration: a thriller with next to no “plot,” nameless characters, a star assassin who runs errands for most of the movie. There are no proper names, nor extravagant tricks—everything’s matter of fact and banal, from the anonymous hotels he checks in and out of and the endless aliases he assumes.
We know nothing about this man, and the set-up is oldest in the book: killer screws up mission, leaves target alive, comes “home” to the Dominican Republic to find his love beaten within an inch of her life. He will get his revenge—“I do not give a fuck.” There are many mantras the Killer repeats in voiceover: “Trust no one,” “Forbid empathy,” “Anticipate, don’t improvise,” “Stick to the plan.” All of this applies to routine murders, walks down the street, trips to a McDonald’s in Paris. Everything is pret-a-porter, self-service automated checkout, a WeWork instead of an Airbnb (“They like their nanny cams.”) The Killer is the first truly contemporary movie made by a Gen X director: Amazon lockers, AirPods, alienation like nothing else. Everyone’s isolated and expendable here, from Tilda Swinton’s posh “fellow assassin,” to a mother of three and the assistant to the Killer’s boss, to the unlucky cab driver who picked up the wrong people at the wrong time.
They all must be taken care of, and they are. The Killer doesn’t “forbid empathy,” and neither does Fassbender’s character, but the world he lives in—our world—makes empathy and trust impossible. We’re all grinding just like him, and if you cut out just a few scenes, you could probably edit this movie as The Doordasher. What’s remarkable is how much this approaches cuts the Killer down to size, and makes him far less menacing than the other nameless, faceless agents of death that litter global cinema. He’s a considerable presence, and Fassbender does a magnificent job betraying his character’s stated intentions and beliefs not only through his face but the way he moves, the way his eyes sit. I’ve never been particularly enthralled by Fassbender before this, and The Killer is the best work of his career.
As for Fincher, I’m sure he weighed the pros and cons of working with Netflix, a streamer that will destroy the detail in his images, a streamer that refuses to allow any of its movies to play in more than one or two theaters for just a couple weeks. I don’t live in New York or Los Angeles, so I couldn’t see The Killer in a theater, the way every movie is meant to be seen. I suspect it would’ve been better received in theaters because the film is so methodical and, to many, dry. There isn’t a lot to chew on for people addicted to information, information, information. There are glorious images, a stellar soundtrack almost exclusively made up of The Smiths, and several set pieces that would’ve had people howling together. Who knows how many will turn off The Killer before the realistic, Torn Curtain-esque fight scene in Florida, or Arliss Howard’s amusing turn as the penitent client?
Maybe Fincher knows one day he’ll be able to release this—and 2020’s Mank—in theaters. So far, there are no plans for DVD’s or Blu-Rays or 4K UHD home video copies, so the only place you’ll be able to see it is on Netflix—for now. It can’t be forever, but then again, Fincher the perfectionist cares most about process. Maybe The Killer is just his take on “cranking one out.” Not bad—it’s one of his best films.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith