Venice 2023 review: The Killer (David Fincher)

“It lacks the sort of smart, twisty screenplay that elevated some of his previous films to all-time classics, but The Killer is still a great entry in his oeuvre with the potential of being a box-office smash, hadn’t it been a Netflix title.”

Luck doesn’t exist. Well, bad luck, perhaps. Anticipate, yes. But one can’t expect the unexpected, really. How was he to know that the woman would suddenly put herself in between his eyes and the prize? Never improvise, sure. But what do you do if you find yourself in a situation you have never been in, that you didn’t even ever fathom to be in? Fight the fight you are paid to fight, of course. Easy to say when it becomes personal. When everything comes apart at the seams. So you act.

After the uneven biopic Mank, American director David Fincher returns to the genre that he does best. Anchored by a steely performance by Michael Fassbender, in great form and flawlessly slipping into an American accent, The Killer is exactly what it says on the tin: a portrait of an assassin that shows the loneliness of a man whose life is mostly spent waiting in a self-created bubble, a film about the false sense of security no matter the preparation. Half the time Fassbender’s killer is acting off of random people checking one of his many fake ID’s; half his dialogue is spoken to himself in voice-over. This nameless man is a man of few words and little, but effective action. A sociopath who repeats his professional code as a mantra to delude himself into thinking that this is just another profession. A code he breaks continuously once he is forced to become a man instead of a machine.

We meet him in Paris, in an apartment ostensibly undergoing renovation. It is, conveniently, right across from a luxury hotel. He waits, as always, patiently. He fills his time methodically, with yoga and dismantling his high-precision rifle, when he doesn’t listen to music to keep himself focused. The Smiths are his favourites. He keeps a close eye on his heart rate, frighteningly low for a man who is about to kill. But fate throws him a curveball, and he botches the hit. Survival instinct kicks in, more so than panic. But when he reaches his hideout in the jungle near the Dominican Republic’s capital Santo Domingo something is off. His home is raided, there’s blood on the walls. A visit to the hospital confirms it’s hers. We don’t know exactly what their relationship is, but she clearly means something to him. And we clearly know this means revenge.

The Killer is cut up into six chapters and an epilogue, and by this very nature the film has an episodic feel. This is intentional, as it mirrors the methodical nature of the man at the heart of its sparse narrative. The structure is not unlike Seven, one of Fincher’s biggest successes, right down to the coda. Yet astonishingly his direction is even tighter in his latest work. Perhaps the deranged mind of John Doe, another nameless character, makes for a messier narrative than the mind of another type of serial killer, the type that is the anti-hero of The Killer. Fincher times everything to perfection, from the rare bouts of comic relief to the single brutal yet exciting man-to-man fight. Carried by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s intense score, The Killer puts your gut in a knot for most of its runtime, but once Fassbender’s assassin gains the upper hand there is time for reflection in its final two chapters. One of these features Tilda Swinton, who shares Fassbender’s profession and sports a platinum wig (somebody likens her to a Q-tip, to the amusement of the man coming after her). Her nameless killer is a surprisingly low-key character for the British chameleon, but her way with words (written by Andrew Kevin Walker, after the original novel by French writer Alexis Nolent) ensures that her one-scene role is a memorable one. Two killers opposite each other, reflecting on the finality of life, which for one of them is near.

What is lacking from The Killer is an emotional core. The battered girl that causes the killer to go on a manhunt is barely a character; unlike Seven, in which Gwyneth Paltrow’s Tracy Mills is a key character, the girl is just a plot device to set things in motion. This motivation doesn’t come up anymore for the remaining chapters and is only referred to as an afterthought in the film’s final scene. As a result, The Killer is a cold and calculated film, akin to a Swiss watch; something that fits Fincher’s style but might negatively affect the amount of time the film will linger in the mind. Even the words of wisdom about our false sense of security Fassbender’s character leaves us with lack the full power of Morgan Freeman quoting Ernest Hemingway. Before its world premiere comparisons were made between The Killer and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samourai, but aside from both assassins wearing hats (Fassbender rocking a floppy fishing hat simply doesn’t look as cool as Alain Delon in a fedora) the similarities are flimsy.

Despite lacking any sort of depth, either philosophical or emotional, The Killer is a satisfying experience thanks to Fincher’s impeccable sense of direction and Fassbender’s best role in ages. A taut thriller that rarely lets up during its two-hour runtime, the film is a showcase for Fincher’s considerable talent for making easily digestible genre films that are a cut or two above their competitors. It lacks the sort of smart, twisty screenplay that elevated some of his previous films to all-time classics, but The Killer is still a great entry in his oeuvre with the potential of being a box-office smash, hadn’t it been a Netflix title.