Like James Wan with Malignant or Michael Bay with Ambulance, David Fincher makes the movie he’s wanted to make his entire career with The Killer. A malicious and meticulous thriller, Fincher and writer Andrew Kevin Walker dispense with the investigator in murder mysteries. Without the middle-man of their investigation, where the unique and unsettling deaths are only shown to us through dissection, the film is able to give you two hours of its monstrous title character (Michael Fassbender, adding a moderately nasally quality to an American accent) doing what he does best: killing.
If we apply one of Alfred Hitchcock’s theoretical scenes (a bomb under a table explodes during a conversation) to distinguish surprise and suspense, where surprise has a bomb the audience had no prior knowledge of suddenly exploding, and suspense shows the bomb under the table and lets the conversation play out, then The Killer is his own bomb, and the world is his table. His mere presence tells us death will occur. Death is so ingrained in The Killer’s life that when, at one point, he accidentally kills an innocent bystander but fails to kill his intended target, it’s not the innocent bystander that matters. No, it’s the life he failed to take that matters. The closest he gets to regretting a death is when a poorly timed method of torture kills his target before he can get the necessary information, his response amounting to little more than “crap, I screwed up the timing, time for plan B.”
Blending in with the surrounding world is a universal trait in an assortment of genres (thrillers, spy films, crime dramas), and The Killer makes excellent use of this trait. In this propulsive, ever-moving thriller, The Killer is our constant companion, the shoulder we look over, and so the locations he travels to make for compelling revelations of both his character and the narrative. For the first 20 or so minutes, he’s exclusively on the run, dropping into gas station restrooms or sneaking his way through airports. At one point, he goes to a hospital, and he goes there with urgency. You might wonder, what could The Killer possibly be doing in a hospital? Does he need to secretly meet his boss? Is there some medication he might use to kill someone?
In a dramatic twist, The Killer is in the hospital for the same reason you or I might go: visiting an injured loved one. Someone found out where The Killer lives and attacked his girlfriend, Magdala (Sophie Charlotte). By establishing the world as his own, improvisational disguise through which he kills for a living, The Killer going to a place of healing for its intended purpose is a simple but brilliant twist.
Don’t let Magdala fool you, though: The Killer is cold-blooded through and through. If the form of Harmony Korine’s Aggro Dr1ft reflected the sloppy, poisonous perspective of Jordi Molla’s assassin, so The Killer’s meticulous, sleek form reflects the mind of Fassbender’s murderer. It could be said that The Killer may be Fincher’s most perfect union of form and content. There almost has to be at least a taste of sociopathy in a man who demanded 100 takes of a lengthy monologue from his last lead (Gary Oldman in Mank), and the perfect dolly shots, flawlessly crisp digital images, and astonishing sound design feel ignited by an ardent perfectionist who cares more about getting the shot right than his lead actor’s sanity. They are right at home with an assassin who is content with choosing the line between life and death like it’s nothing.
Most of the killing, whether The Killer is snapping a neck or surprising his target with a gunshot to the head, is sudden, loud, and over in a second. Both Fincher and The Killer understand the weight of killing, and they both fit these violent acts into the greater whole of their work, with the deceptive smoothness of a sleight-of-hand trick. He walks downstairs with a woman, he snaps her neck so she falls and it looks like an accident. Someone asks for his hand after slipping, he reaches out as though to give it to them, only to use the gesture to aim his gun and shoot them in the head.
While The Killer is as richly, sleekly directed as any of Fincher’s other work, it throws a formal curve with what might be his most prominent use of handheld cinematography. This isn’t to say it takes up most of the film—the majority of the images still use steadicams, dolly tracks, and the like—but there are entire sequences shot handheld as a means to establish The Killer’s own frantic anxiety, his loss of control. This first use is subtle: as he waits to do a job, some delivery men unexpectedly show up, and he must hide in the shadows as he waits to potentially kill them. He doesn’t have to, but the tension in that possibility is established by the slightest distortion, the slightest shake of the camera. It’s the first time we’ve seen The Killer be worried, and it’s a fascinating sight.
When a job goes wrong and he’s on the run, however, his motorcycle padlock won’t budge, the camera violently pans from the padlock to The Killer’s motorcycle helmet. We can’t see his face, but given the frantic motions of both his head and the camera, we can tell he’s terrified. The most prominent (and best) use of shaky cam is during a spectacular fight scene between The Killer and another, notably larger, assassin. The cinematography captures a flawless balance between viscerality and clarity. Up until this point, we’ve seen The Killer kill quite a few people. We’ve seen his ability to blend in, his willingness to kill, his ability to kill, but we haven’t seen his ability to fight mano-a-mano, and battling this hulk of a man credited only as The Brute (Sala Baker, who wore Sauron’s armor in Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings trilogy, in case you wondered just how big this Brute is). It’s the only scene when The Killer’s life is out of his own hands, and each of The Brute’s punches, each time The Killer is thrown into a table or wall, practically sounds like thunder.
This was an easy review to write, but it’s not so easy to end. There’s so much to say about the craft, the structure, the characterization, yet the film ends on a wholly content note. The Killer could only get this money from killing, and he relishes every penny. Aggro Dr1ft’s declaration to love and God at its end was messy and possibly insincere, but it may at least inspire the viewer to find a proper outlet for love. The Killer has no interest in such a declaration, even a messy one.
Whether you’re left uncomfortable by it, find yourself a little jealous, or simply feel nothing, its ending is as honest an ending as you can get.