David Fincher’s new Netflix thriller The Killer (a world premiere in Venice this weekend) is bloody, violent and seemingly partly tongue in cheek. Its hired assassin hero (Michael Fassbender) is the latest in a very long line of movie hitmen with existential leanings. We never learn his name but we hear a lot about his philosophy on life. In the voiceover that runs throughout the movie, we discover that he likes to listen to The Smiths while on a job. He lives by various sacred rules, “anticipate don’t improvise”, “trust no one” and “forbid empathy” among them. Underlining his strangely poetic nature, he even occasionally makes reference to Dylan Thomas.
A bravura opening sees him waiting for a small eternity high up in a building in Paris to take a shot at the next victim he has been assigned to murder. Ready to take as much time as the job needs, he does a bit of yoga and fiddles with his weaponry. He has little interest in the identity of his victim. The killer is a bit of a voyeur. Like James Stewart in Rear Window, he uses his high-powered binoculars to peer into the lives of everyday people as they go about their business, maybe drinking coffee or making love. He seems to be the consummate professional. “If you are unable to endure boredom, this work is not for you,” he tells us. Then the fateful moment comes when he finally has an opportunity to pull the trigger… and he misses.
Fassbender excels in this type of role, as the lone wolf anti-hero who keeps his emotions firmly in check. He plays his character in a typically saturnine and intense style, his brow furrowed, his concentration absolute. When he flees the scene in Paris, he forces himself to show no sign of the panic he clearly feels. He dresses up as a German tourist realising that he’ll blend in and that no one likes German tourists anyway – and so he will be left well alone. In the course of the movie, he goes on to do some very nasty things indeed and yet we still always take his side.
Fincher, working with a screenplay from Andrew Kevin Walker (who also wrote his classic serial killer Se7en), directs in as terse a way as Fassbender acts. This is a film with no narrative flab. Nonetheless, the suspicion remains that the director is not taking the assignment entirely seriously. Every so often, at moments of maximum tension, he will undercut proceedings with some comic schtick. For example, in the midst of a brutal fight with a kick-boxing heavy who’s trying to kill him, Fassbender reaches into a kitchen drawer hoping to find a knife. He ends up with a cheese grater instead. The sudden blasts of Morrissey singing his most deadpan and lugubrious ballads heighten the sense that the filmmakers are only playing with the hitman genre. The film is adapted from a graphic novel by Alexis “Matz” Nolent and it’s no surprise that it has such little emotional depth.
After his ignominious failure in Paris, the killer retreats to the Dominican Republic to hide out. He quickly discovers that his bosses have put out a contract on him. Worse, his girlfriend has been viciously assaulted (although she has refused to divulge any information about him). He vows revenge against her attackers. The story is divided into chapters following him as he pursues lawyers and rival assassins everywhere from New Orleans to Chicago.
Tilda Swinton has a glorious cameo as a well-spoken hitwoman who is described several times as looking “like a Q Tip”. She is a thin, elegant and very witty figure whose approach to the art of killing is even more nihilistic than that of Fassbender. She likes fine food, malt whisky and ice cream – and never loses her poise even at moments of maximum peril. She gets most of the best lines in the movie although her screen time is fleeting.
The Killer is very slickly made. In its better moments, it has the same relentless intensity as films like Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964) and John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) in which Lee Marvin is dishing out retribution against former associates. The filmmaker always shows the same painstaking attention to detail as his homicidal hero does to the logistics of murdering his adversaries. Fassbender is well cast and gives a typically committed performance – one leavened by moments of very deadpan humour. However. The Killer also often drifts into the realm of self-conscious pastiche. It’s questionable, too, whether Fincher brings anything fresh to the genre. There is little here that audiences won’t have seen before in all those other revenge thrillers in which disgruntled hired killers turn their ire and their fire against their former paymasters.
Dir: David Fincher. Starring: Michael Fassbender, Arliss Howard, Sophie Charlotte, Tilda Swinton, Charles Parnell, Kerry O’Malley, Sala Baker. 118 minutes.
‘The Killer’ is in cinemas in October, and streams on Netflix from 10 November