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‘The Killer’: David Fincher’s meticulous nothing

| Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Ethan Chiang | The Observer

Since 2014’s “Gone Girl,” director David Fincher has been toiling away in the meaningless content black hole of Netflix. As the Cannes Festival director Thierry Fremaux so harshly but accurately put it, “Fincher has left cinema … I tried to explain this to him modestly, obviously, that he doesn’t exist anymore.” In 2020, Fincher didn’t do much to beat these accusations, for he returned with “Mank,” which received a lukewarm critical response. But fret not, Fincher stans told me, for they swear that even-numbered Fincher releases (“Seven,” “Fight Club,” “Zodiac,” “The Social Network,” “Gone Girl” and now his most recent “The Killer”) are always masterpieces! Does this historically unerring rule of thumb still hold true with “The Killer?” Nope!

“The Killer” starts on a strong foot with the opening sequence. It’s a quiet but enthralling and fun portrayal of the Killer, our hitman protagonist, preparing to kill his target in Paris. We see him do his yoga, listen to The Smiths, eat McMuffins without the muffin, perform careful reconnaissance on his target and sleep in an abandoned WeWork office. We’re also treated to his internal monologue in the form of a voice-over, which is full of deranged proverbs and corny musings. But his exacting regimen and planning are ultimately futile, for he eventually misses the one sniper shot he had on his target. We see him freak out, and his world collapses on itself as he deals with the ramifications of his mistake.

From here, the film’s plot becomes vapid. It devolves into a trite revenge story with no stakes or tension. We see the Killer travel all across the country trying to kill his employers and the people they hired to hurt his girlfriend as punishment for his failed mission. It’s a plot that undergoes very little escalation or development. Moreover, his girlfriend and his relationship with her are not fleshed out or developed at all, so there is no emotional investment in this contrived quest for revenge. Even the Killer himself seems indifferent to it all. While the conflict between his usual cold professionalism and his emotionally driven mission may be the point, this dissonance is never thoroughly explored, so it just ends up sucking the narrative of any intrigue and making its character study boring. Furthermore, most side characters and interactions are unmemorable and generic. The film slogs along with a barebones story and substitutes any earned thematic or emotional depth with eventually gratuitous voice-over and style over substance. 

Nevertheless, the film is not without its strengths. I like the film’s subtle commentary on how the modern conveniences of capitalism have both demythologized and democratized the hitman job by showing the Killer use curbside pickups, order next-day Amazon deliveries and disguise himself as a Postmates driver. The peak of the film is the fight scene in Florida with the Brute, which is visceral and exciting. It’s a tour de force of directing, editing, sound design and choreography and is one of the best scenes in Fincher’s entire filmography. Moreover, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score is sublime, perfectly complementing the grungy, frantic tone of the film. Michael Fassbender’s central performance as the Killer is strong, capturing his stoic but neurotic personality. Fincher’s directing is unsurprisingly marvelous and precise as ever. He makes the Killer’s fastidious tasks often very exciting to watch. Alas, great filmmaking can only take you so far if your script is crap, your narrative is flaccid and your vision is nonexistent.

“The Killer” is a breezy, slick time, but it never moved or captivated me deeply like Fincher’s other films. Its bland story and a lack of meaningful character exploration make for an unengaging time. Ironically, the film becomes the very thing it is criticizing. Like the titular protagonist, Fincher has become so lost in his cold, detached and meticulous craft that he now has no soul, passion or purpose. “The Killer” is his most personal film and subsequently the weakest of his I’ve seen.

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