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Review: ‘The Killer’ returns to familiar territory

Courtesy MAS Records

By Jay Collura     11/1/23 1:04am

Score: ★★★★½

Despite ongoing industry strikes, 2023 has been a good year for Hollywood, specifically for well-known auteurs. David Fincher’s “The Killer” once again proves his firm grasp on the thriller genre, and joins the likes of Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese’s releases as one of 2023’s best films.

“The Killer” is Fincher’s  second cinematic collaboration with Netflix, alongside 2020’s “Mank,” and a continuation of their long-time partnership that began with his work on “House of Cards.” It is a shame, however, that “The Killer” was born from a streaming partnership, as it’s a film that demands to be seen on the big screen with the best speakers.

The film utilizes the perspective of an unnamed assassin who prides himself on his perfect kill record and attention to detail. However, the hitman is immediately confronted with a new challenge as he does the unthinkable — misses his target. This sends him on a downward spiral, as he has to deal with both the criminal underworld that has now opened up beneath him and his newfound lack of control over a previously familiar and comfortable world.

Despite this premise, the film is not really concerned with the action set pieces and showdowns like a “John Wick” movie, though the fight scenes are career highlights for Fincher. Rather, the film focuses on the procedural perfectionism of the assassin and the ego associated with being a perfectionist in the first place. Michael Fassbender, who is perfect as the titular killer, displays a smoldering coldness throughout the runtime of the film, never allowing for emotional outbursts but never seeming fully in control. It is clear that more than anything, he is frustrated with his new situation, and this frustration is written all over Fassbender’s face.

Fassbender also lends himself to the film’s narration. The nihilistic attitude of Fincher’s “Fight Club” reemerges in a very direct way, as the hitman nihilistically broods about both the miserable state of the world and his ability to see above it all. Rather than coming off as annoying, it is clear that Fincher is poking fun at this pessimistic worldview. No matter how precise Fassbender’s narration is, it is always underscored by his comically large ego or another lapse in control.

The film’s coldness is what will make it decisive — there are prolonged, repetitive sequences of the hitman setting up for his next task, and though the killer occasionally loses his grip, it is clear he will always be in the driver’s seat of the criminal underworld he occupies. However, this repetition is precisely the point of the film. “The Killer” is criticizing and examining the folly of being a perfectionist but does not exclusively condemn the results of it. If these themes sound familiar, it’s because they are incredibly reflective on the part of the director. Fincher is known for his extensive production work and demanding shoots, and this film feels like him examining this element of his artistic process.

Regardless of the detailed subtext of the film, it’s also gripping on the surface. The camerawork and special effects create an appropriately chilly atmosphere, matched by inspired uses of shaky camera work. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who are some of the best composers working today, contribute grungy, driven tracks to the soundtrack that match the intensity and discomposure found within the film. Sound design is always a strong point in Fincher’s films, and each noise is perfectly placed to immerse the viewer in the stressful nature of each situation. The Smiths also are frequently needle-dropped to match the edginess and contradictory nature of the main character, and this choice gives the film great energy outside of the more thrilling moments.

Taken all together, Fincher’s trademark frigid style makes the film great, but somewhat inaccessible at times. If you are able to break through the ice, there is an appropriately self-reflective and invigorating story about the pitfalls of perfection. If you can’t, what’s left is still a well-crafted, if repetitive, thriller movie. 

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