On those rare occasions when I’m asked about my influences or my favorite filmmakers, David Fincher consistently makes the short list. In terms of casting, camerawork, editing, scoring, and pure cinematic storytelling skill, Fincher consistently proves himself a master of the craft (Mank notwithstanding). This is the man who gave us Seven, which still holds up as a definitive examination on the nature and meaning of pure evil. And of course he also brought us Fight Club, which remains such an impeccable depiction of toxic masculinity that the worst of our society still see themselves reflected in it.
And now we have The Killer, in which Fincher takes us directly inside the headspace of an unnamed assassin played by Michael Fassbender. Complete with Seven screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker writing the script. Let’s fucking go.
(Side note: Because the main character is anonymous, I’ll be referring to the title character without italics and the movie itself with italics. Confusing? Better get used to it.)
The film opens with twenty unbroken minutes of voiceover dialogue in which the Killer walks us through the ins and outs of his job. As it turns out, the job involves a whole lot of boredom, waiting around for the opportune moment to strike. It also involves moving around so many times and under so many aliases that the Killer effectively has no life or identity of his own. By necessity, he sees human life as so disposable that nothing he does could lower the global birth/death ratio. And of course his job also means that he’s fundamentally incapable of keeping any friends or loved ones, lest his enemies — or even his supposed friends! — go after them as leverage against him.
The message is clear: If anyone sees this movie and wants to be the Killer or engage in his line of work (and such people undoubtedly exist, Gods help us all), they would have to be an inhuman piece of shit.
Yet this protagonist remains compelling for multiple reasons. To start with, it makes a huge difference that Fincher knows how to make this material engaging, and Fassbender is an actor with the charisma to sell anything. But more importantly, the Killer is fascinating to watch because he’s so damned good at what he does.
The Killer may have bad luck at times, but he never makes stupid mistakes. He’s intelligent, he’s careful, he’s diabolically clever, and he’s ruthlessly efficient. It’s always much more fun to watch a competent character who’s one step ahead of the audience, and that’s the Killer to a T. It certainly helps that the Killer keeps us up to speed with voiceover narration, which also helps to portray all the boring stretches in a way that isn’t boring to sit through. Wonderful.
What’s more, the Killer is incredibly good at his work in a way that brings up the general theme of security. It’s an old established rule that something can either be secure or easy to use, never both. (I work in the medical industry, I know this from experience.) So when we’re surrounded by all the conveniences of modern life, when Amazon or DoorDash can bring anything we want right to our door within hours, when we depend so much on hackable electronics, how secure are we really? What would it take for anyone in the modern world to be truly safe? What does it mean to be safe, and when is it only an illusion?
While the Killer is certainly a fascinating character to watch, it’s crucial to note that he’s not supposed to be a sympathetic character. And he’s going up against other assassins and the shitheels who hire them. So this is a film in which we get to watch unsympathetic characters beating the crap out of each other with the satisfaction of knowing that all sides deserve what’s coming to them. Except for the occasional unlucky civilian who gets stuck in the crossfire, as a helpful reminder that we’re dealing with monstrous psychopaths here.
There aren’t very many other actors of note in the cast, but I’d be remiss not to mention Tilda Swinton’s brief yet show-stopping appearance as the Expert. She’s basically the Ghost of Christmas Future for the Killer, a painful reminder that everything the Killer was ever promised was a lie. He doesn’t get to disappear, he doesn’t get to take his money and enjoy his new life in retirement, and he doesn’t ever get to live in peace. Not completely, and not for long.
I had a great time with this movie… until it started to lose me.
The voiceovers were a double-edged sword from start to finish. Yes, the voiceovers were a neat way of getting us into the character’s headspace and helping us through the job’s dull monotony. It’s also pathetically lazy storytelling, and the voiceover monologues only get more useless as the film goes on.
Anton Chigurh didn’t need voiceovers to sell himself as a stone-cold badass and let us all know about his worldviews. Just saying.
The plot is another issue. Yes, it’s entertaining to watch the Killer be incredibly good at what he does. But there comes a point when it’s no longer plausible for anyone to stop him or kill him. And that’s the point where the script loses all tension and the plot serves no purpose.
But the big problem comes right at the ending. For the life of me, I can’t make heads or tails of that ending. Everything about this story feels like the Killer is headed for a tragic ending and the story can’t be over until he’s finally dead. Though if the filmmakers wanted to subvert expectations and give the Killer a redemptive arc of some kind, that might be… well, it would be tricky, but it could work.
Instead, the filmmakers settle into a floppy kind of middle ground. Potentially worse, the Killer pulls a 180 and goes completely against all the principles he recited to us every ten minutes. This might’ve worked as the culmination of a character arc, but it’s so rushed and so contradictory that the ending fails to make a coherent point one way or another.
There’s a lot to like about The Killer. It’s worth seeing this movie just for Fassbender’s wonderful performance and Fincher’s spellbinding skill behind the camera. This movie easily could’ve been a biting satire, using the title character as a metaphor for living as an “alpha male” in a toxic cutthroat world, and it does serve that purpose nicely through most of the runtime. Alas, the film gradually loses itself further and further up its own ass until it flubs the landing entirely.
I have no problem recommending this one on Netflix, provided you already have a subscription. If you like, you can even cut out the movie fifteen minutes from the end and make up your own ending.