Michael Fassbender Is ‘The Killer’ in David Fincher’s Intensely Hypnotic Portrait of an Assassin

Assassins have become symbols for specific ideas. In movies they are always focused, stylish operators who meticulously master various disciplines in order to get paid vast sums to kill someone. David Fincher’s “The Killer” turns the idea on its head with the director’s renowned eye for meticulous detail. It’s one of the best films of this type, building great intensity through its portrait of a hired gun who takes the job as seriously as any craftsman. But even perfectionists can make mistakes and Fincher revels in mixing familiar hitman clichés with sharp, human originality. More intriguingly, in addition to its moral dilemmas and questions, it can be proposed that this movie is a mirror of the director himself. 

The source material for the screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker is a graphic novel by Alexis “Matz” Nolent but the details are all Fincher. We first meet an unnamed assassin (Michael Fassbender), the Killer of the title, as he sits inside a WeWork space preparing to assassinate a target in the luxury penthouse across the street in Paris. His routine is precise, including exercise and blocking out the world’s noise by playing the Smiths. Then something goes wrong and the Killer scrambles to cover his tracks and return home to the Dominican Republic, while dealing with his angry employer and an angrier client. What he also finds is his partner Magdala (Sophie Charlotte) nearly beaten to death, no doubt as part of an emerging form of retribution for his mistake. The Killer then marshals his resources to go hunt those who hurt what’s dearest to him.

Some directors need to return to the basics of their craft after a long journey through other cinematic avenues. David Fincher has long been hailed as one of our great modern directors. A master of visual composition and pace, his work has always been engrossing and has only been growing in the complexity of its storytelling. His last two films were large projects with stacked casts, the murder mystery “Gone Girl” and “Mank,” a biopic of “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. The latter experimented with re-creating the look and even sound of a 1940s production. “The Killer” is a return to the intelligent, tight movies Fincher excels at and it’s no surprise it reunites him with writer Andrew Kevin Walker, who penned his first real hit, 1995’s serial killer thriller “Seven.” They take assassin movie clichés and give them a needed polish. Fincher’s grit and visual elegance makes this film gorgeous to watch, but it’s even more riveting as a study of its various characters.

Movie assassins tend to be worldly superhumans who seem good at everything, which makes you wonder why they choose to kill for a living. With dry humor, “The Killer” explores how such a character would actually function in the real world. The Killer’s inner monologue is a jumble of personal codes and philosophies, commenting on his ability to focus on a job because, “I don’t give a fuck.” He reminds himself that empathy is weakness. He can discuss guns and bodily functions with scientific precision. Yet, the mistake that gets him into trouble by firing a bullet at just the wrong moment seems so hilariously contradictory. It’s also brilliantly scored and cut to the Smiths’ hypnotic “How Soon Is Now?” His employer is a crooked lawyer (Charles Parnell) who even while facing the prospect of death, talks like an Ivy League snob. The Killer cuts through everyone, even a dutiful secretary (Kerry O’Malley) like an avenging angel in khakis and sunglasses. What matters is that he is now violating his own rules. If empathy is useless, why does he feel the need to avenge Magdala? You could argue he knows the clean-up crew is after him next, but he could just disappear with the millions he has spread out over various overseas accounts.

There are moments of quick, brutal action in “The Killer” but it’s never a loud guns and explosions fest. Like Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic “Le Samouraï,” the assassin as a roaming, lonely figure is more fascinating. Michael Fassbender, who we haven’t seen much of lately, delivers one of his best roles as a hardened, cold man on the exterior who only speaks as much as is necessary. Any worry or empathy is expressed in his look or eyes, as when he listens to a target (Tilda Swinton) ramble over an expensive, potentially final, dinner and wine. He’s trained but not overly smooth like cartoonish movie killers. During an escape he tosses items into sewer drains and garbage trucks while riding a motorcycle, but we also feel could just as easily forget something in the rush. Fincher still delivers at least one scene of genuine bone-crunching action when the Killer fights a big brute of a hitman (Sala Baker). Atmosphere is more enveloping than violence in this movie, framed by another score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that sounds like some late night, electric dreamscape.

While major films like “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Game” easily established Fincher as a modern heir to Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, his smaller films are expert classes in intensity. “The Killer” is closer to his 2002 “Panic Room,” a riveting, contained gem about a woman (Jodie Foster) trapped in a panic room with her daughter as intruders try to force them out. There’s also some of the dark psychology of his TV work in “Mindhunter” and “House of Cards.” Kirk Baxter, who edited Fincher’s modern classic “The Social Network,” gives “The Killer” exquisite pacing. Somehow all of Fincher’s best qualities as a director come together in this movie, which ponders deeper, unsettling questions about the drive to murder as a profession. We’re fooled into rooting for a “hero” who pretends to be an amoral creature. Fassbender’s tone of voice has shadows of the serial killer making phone calls in Fincher’s “Zodiac,” the difference is this guy has convinced himself he’s just a craftsman. The dark side of the world has always attracted this director. He may have directed Madonna’s “Vogue” music video but also brought ferocious intensity to videos for bands like A Perfect Circle.

Where the Killer and Fincher connect, one suspects, is in a devotion to detail. The way Fassbender describes taking his work seriously is how you can imagine Fincher discussing filmmaking. Not a single shot in this movie is wasted or sloppily framed. The light is perfect and the compositions are as rich as a master painting. Filmmaking is also dangerous in the sense that risks are involved and failure is always a possibility. Fincher may not approve of this character’s lifestyle, but it’s easy to sense why he was attracted to this material. Without needing too much of a high budget or reliance on special effects, he presents a film both intense and quietly funny. The Killer faces a rich client (Arliss Howard) and doesn’t need to make big speeches, confirming certain details as if they were at an office, delivering threats without raising his voice. Fincher, long ago, marked pop culture with movies like “Fight Club.” By now he has the confidence to simply tell a good story without resorting to cheap fireworks. “The Killer” is an engrossing ride along with a hired gun, made by an artist who never wastes his canvas.

The Killer” begins streaming Nov. 10 on Netflix.