The Killer review: David Fincher shoots to thrill

Michael Fassbender in The Killer
Michael Fassbender in The Killer

Michael Fassbender in The Killer

To call The Killer, director David Fincher’s new thriller, aloof and cold to the touch is an understatement, despite the presence of near-constant voiceover narration from star Michael Fassbender as a seasoned assassin. And even if that detachment is part of the point, it doesn’t well serve this efficient but strangely disposable effort.

Adapted from a French comic book series by Alexis “Matz” Nolent and Luc Jacamon, the film hums with Fincher’s usual sense of well-honed articulation, in which each cinematic piece is polished, and highly intentional. But it also exists in a firmly low-altitude orbit, never achieving a level of significant differentiation, thematically or narratively, that would stake a grander claim to its reason for being beyond mere plug-and-play entertainment.

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This technical mastery establishes and assures a baseline absorption in terms of a viewing experience. Whatever one thinks of his films, collectively and individually, it’s difficult to argue against the assertion that Fincher marries form and content in a highly thoughtful and usually compelling way. And his precision, his exacting sense of captured movement, here fits hand-in-glove with a character whose entire being is dictated by thoroughness. The film’s tagline, “Execution is everything,” delivers the obvious pun, but then works on another level for rib-nudging cineastes.

But pedigree and well-calibrated diligence only go so far. In the cold light of day, the question looms: what scenes stick to the ribs of a viewer? The answer, unfortunately, is not many. As The Killer moves through its nearly two-hour runtime, the vapor-high of a tightly choreographed opening sequence and the undeniable pleasure of being comfortably cradled in the hands of a master craftsman give way to a wandering mind.

A physical confrontation with Baker’s character, credited only as “The Brute,” provides some hand-to-hand action, though perhaps nothing viewers haven’t seen before from Jason Bourne. Later, Fassbender’s scene with Swinton lands in curiously muted fashion. These individuals, one comes to realize, are all empty shells. The movie is a non-character study.

It’s not fair, of course, to stack up every film against the full canon of its maker. But there certainly doesn’t feel much of heft or substance here. This is especially surprising given how long Fincher has talked about making The Killer—well over a decade. For all that dedication, his movie doesn’t land as a tongue-in-cheek allegory about the detail-oriented grind of filmmaking (“If you can’t handle boredom, this job isn’t for you”), which would be a deliciously bold take on such a paint-by-numbers narrative.

Nor does it particularly connect as a deeply personal portrait of alienation, or an unpacking of late-life realizations regarding the same. There’s no big catharsis here, nor a meaningful awakening. The willfully soporific voiceover—in which Fassbender’s character insists that luck, karma, and justice don’t exist, and repeats other mantras meant to achieve and assist focus—eventually has a numbing effect. Fassbender, who can dim the light in his eyes in a way that communicates emotional disconnection without hollowness, is as solid a match for this role as one might hope. He makes it work on a surface level. But it’s the material which ultimately squeezes the life out of The Killer.

Despite its slick artifice and elaborate world-building, the John Wick franchise offers up a more realistically believable character than what an audience gets here. The Killer successfully aligns viewers with its form; its most memorable moments lie in its textures, its austere settings, its well-ordered frames. That the film doesn’t stir anything in the subconscious, though, is its greatest surprise.

The Killer opens in theaters October 27 and will be available on Netflix November 10

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