From what I read, I gather that there are some clever things happening in The Killer, David Fincher’s new Netflix movie, based on the French graphic novel by Alexis “Matz” Nolent, with illustrations by Luc Jacamon. Clever, that is, if you’re into Fincher’s own metacommentary on himself as a filmmaker.
A few critics have noted a series of embedded clues that go beyond merely noticing that here’s yet another neo-noir murderer film by Fincher. But this kind of detailed study of Fincher-world is almost entirely lost on me. My indifference to Fincher’s films is vast and deep. I only admire one — 2007’s Zodiac — and sometimes I consider going back to watch it again to make sure it’s really as good as I remember, as Fincher has made so many films I despise. When seeking examples of ludicrous, overproduced, overpraised “prestige film” dreck coming out of Hollywood, the best examples I know are still Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and Mank (2020).
Some directors, however technically skilled, are largely incapable of moving you. Or, I should say, me. Fincher’s expertise is a series of obvious, annoying, and slickly uninteresting moves he insists on making in film after film. For example, if I never again see that stupid sulfurous yellow color he loves to inject into almost every goddamn movie he makes, it’ll be too soon.
But it’s only fair to note that The Killer is a big hit on Netflix, the number-one film on the streaming service. The popularity of Fincher’s murder-visions, whether in film or TV series form, is undeniable. Still, The Killer is particularly maddening because it’s so deliberately vacuous. That’s part of what makes it so clever — at least that’s what I gather from some of the critics who like the way Fincher is humorously referring to his own filmmaking.
For the sake of this enervating self-send-up, we’re stuck in the permanent company of a disaffected, unnamed hit man played by Michael Fassbender, who moves through the world almost without causing a ripple — except when he kills somebody. He doesn’t speak unless absolutely necessary, which would be a mercy if we viewers weren’t privy to his internal monologue, a wall-to-wall voice-over that drones on in a series of clichés expressing existential alienation in junior-high terms. (“It’s a dog-eat-dog-world, kill or be killed . . .”)
Note that Fincher is also working referentially within the context of other hit-man films, unfortunately reminding us how much better they were. Remember Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967), a film so riveting to look at, and so focused on the beautiful, silent, and alienated hit man played by young Alain Delon that you just stare, mesmerized, for its 105-minute running time? Or that wonderfully cold, taciturn, thin-white-duke of an assassin played by Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal (1973)? He scarcely utters a word through the whole film. Good times, good times.
In the interminable opening sequence of The Killer, the hit man is staking out his target, and pondering the nature of his job, which includes the ability to endure boredom. He eats, he practices yoga, he listens to The Smiths, he does painstaking preparation while waiting. When the target finally arrives in the apartment across the way, the hit man spends ages setting up possible kill-shots while his voice-over narration yammers on about rules for success in his profession. (“Measure twice, cut once.”)
Then he botches the hit. It’s not clear what makes him miss — best guess is he’s ironically so distracted by his own obsessive self-talk about ruthless efficiency, it makes him kill the sex worker hired for the evening instead of the actual corrupt rich guy type he was aiming at.
Our blah antihero then makes a speedy exit from the scene of his debacle, and spends the rest of the film dealing with the consequences. He flies to his fabulous modernist mansion in the Dominican Republic, and discovers there’s already been a retaliatory attack, which put his inexplicably devoted girlfriend (Sophie Charlotte) in the hospital with serious injuries. When he goes to visit her — and she tells him she survived the attack because she couldn’t bear the idea of never seeing him again — it’s an eye-popping surprise to hear it.
Then he goes to take revenge on the man responsible — his boss, The Lawyer (Charles Parnell), following the structural pattern that gets set early and repeats through the film’s many “chapters.” The hit man arrives in an airport, wearing some Everyman outfit such as his German Tourist ensemble, complete with bucket hat. (“No one wants to talk to a German tourist.”) He goes through security with a fake ID card featuring a name taken from popular TV series of yore, such as Felix Unger or Richard Cunningham or George Jefferson. No one in the world of the film recognizes or reacts to these names. It’s a slack running gag only for us — lucky, lucky us!
Then Bucket Hat rents a vehicle, and he goes to stake out his next hit. He’s very “workmanlike” throughout, and sometimes wears worker coveralls and rents worker vans, and goes to his public storage cubicle to get more supplies, all of which align him pointlessly with ordinary people — this slick, rich, square-jawed, ultra tech-savvy dude pontificating through life.
He kills a whole series of people, each one far more interesting than he is, and this generates a certain energy in the viewer, rooting against the protagonist. Hope briefly flickers when he finally has to go up against the heavily muscled hit man who assaulted his girlfriend, and who’s described as such a maniac there’s at least a possibility Bucket Hat will be horribly maimed in the ensuing and very lengthy fight scene. Maybe after that he’ll have to retire or something, and then the movie would only be about ninety minutes long. But no such luck.
Finally, Tilda Swinton shows up as “The Expert,” who’s described as looking “like a Q-tip” because of her long lean figure and white-blonde shock of hair. She’s another rival professional assassin, the one who’d been in charge of the attack that injured Bucket Hat’s girlfriend. Swinton is a canny enough actor that she can make something temporarily vital of her long scene at a posh restaurant. In trying to make interesting conversation during what she knows is her last meal, she’s up against the film’s central problem, just like we are — Bucket Hat is so blank-eyed and dull, there’s just no way to generate any liveliness when he’s around. It’s like serving tennis balls into a wet blanket.
And there you have it — there’s really very little left to say. Fincher’s been around — and successful — long enough to pretend he’s Alfred Hitchcock or something. His hope is, I think, that you’ll find added fascination in the way he implicates himself in his films about maladjusted behaviors and deep psychological disturbance and a fundamentally sick society. Perhaps he’ll do a cameo appearance in his next movie, like Hitchcock used to do.