David Fincher’s thriller “The Killer,” starring Michael Fassbender, opens in theaters on October 27 and streams on Netflix starting November 10th. It is a return to form for David Fincher, who has had this adaptation of Alexis Nolent’s graphic novel as a passion project for 20 years. “The Killer” is a no-holds-barred look at an assassin without scruples who is constantly focusing on the task at hand with dog-eat-dog, kill-or-be-killed determination. He avoids empathy, saying “Empathy is weakness.”
The film begins in Paris, where Fassbender’s character has set up shop in a WeWorks empty office space and is waiting for his target to appear in the windows of Le Petite Raphael, a tony hotel directly across the street at 3 Rue du Grav. The killer complains about the boredom of his work (“It’s amazing how physically exhausting it can be to do nothing.”)
The killer doesn’t want to know why he is eliminating his victims. He just wants to be successful. “Fight only the battle you are paid to fight. What’s in it for me?” These are axioms that guide him, as are “Trust no one” and “Anticipate, don’t improvise.” (“I am what I am. Consider yourself lucky if our paths never cross.”)
Fassbender has been quite successful since being recruited by Hodges, a Black attorney in New Orleans (Charles Parnell of “Grand Theft Auto”). He jettisoned a law career for a life of crime. Now he has a palatial hide-away hidden somewhere in the Dominican Republic, shared with a beautiful woman who loves him. When visiting New Orleans, the omnipresent voice-over tells us that New Orleans is a city with many good restaurants, but only one menu. Humorous asides like that make the voice-over amusing. So do the many aliases that the killer adopts including Felix Unger, Oscar Madison, Howard Cunningham, Archibald Bunker, and Sam Malone.
The problems begin when the killer’s planned hit in Paris goes awry. The dominatrix moves into the shot at the moment of truth and the real target (Endre Hules, “Apollo 13”) escapes. A secondary team is sent to the Dominican Republican to prevent any “blowback” by eliminating the killer. When the assassin (Fassbender) is not there, they rough up his lady love. Now the killer is going to make sure that, as he promises her brother Marcus (Emiliano Pernia), “Nothing like this will ever be allowed to happen again.”
The film has “chapters” in Paris, New Orleans, Florida, New York and Chicago. The last three locations are the homes of the hit-man and hit-woman (Tilda Swinton) and the client behind the initial Paris hit. There is also an Epilogue. The shots of exteriors in those locations gave the film the look (and sound) of real life. There are also great close-up shots of Fassbender’s eyes as he is concentrating for a kill shot. Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt provides a riveting, thoroughly engrossing visual feast.
The sound effects and music (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) add immeasurably to the thoroughly professional look, sound and feel of this David Fincher (“Seven,” “FightClub”, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) film.
The film is 80% voice-over, with Fassbender’s voice conveying observations not only on how best to be successful as an assassin, but remarks about his take on humanity, the music of the Smiths, and the relative intelligence of Claybourne, the Chicago mark, who hired Fassbender through intermediaries. As Claybourne tries to excuse himself from any culpability, he tells the killer the hit wasn’t personal. “They told me it was insurance to prevent any blowback. Clean-up on Aisle 3;” this cost Claybourne (Arliss Howard, “Moneyball,””Mank”) an additional $150,000.
The use of voice-over has often been criticized and really fell out of favor. But films such as “Goodfellas,” Casino,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Raising Arizona” have used voice over to good effect. It has been a long time since I’ve seen a film so thoroughly given over to the use of voice-over. The asides and remarks were amusing enough that it did not come off as weak. [I particularly enjoyed Fassbender’s remark that Claybourne did not appear to be a member of MENSA, but there were many clever remarks.]
There is a terrific fight scene when the killer reaches Florida. (Voice-over aside: “Florida: the Sunshine State. Where else can you find so many like-minded individuals outside a penitentiary?”) Fassbender has to drug two pit bulls that roam the yard of the hired hit-man before he can enter his house. The hit-man does not take kindly to the intrusion and a knock-down, drag-out fight to the death ensues. At the end, the killer is racing for the exit with the two now-conscious dogs chasing him. The scene took me back to 2017’s “Bullet Head,” where dangerous dogs terrorize three men in a warehouse.
The always awesome Tilda Swinton has a scene with Fassbender that opens up some plot thoughts. It’s not as good as her climactic scene with George Clooney in “Michael Clayton,” but it’s an excellent scene. The two are in a restaurant called “The Waterfront.” The killer has joined her at her table, uninvited. Tilda is a regular and well-known to the staff. (She also knows their names). Fassbender has tracked her down for revenge, since she was the female assassin who “looked like a Q-tip.”
The logical thing for Ms. Swinton to have done would have been to cause a scene inside the restaurant— if she wants to live, that is. True, she might not succeed and others might become collateral damage, but the killer has told us early on that 75% of all murderers are caught, ultimately, because of eye witnesses. Even if she were to be executed on the spot, she would, in a sense, be potentially taking the killer down with her.
There is a cinematic reason for Swinton to have meekly followed Fassbender outside, which I will not reveal here, but people who are facing death will go to great lengths to save their own skins. To me, Tilda’s decision to obey Fassbender’s instructions regarding leaving together represented the Kiss of Death and was somewhat illogical.
The killer has stashed away over 8 and ½ million dollars. He hopes to kick back and enjoy his ill-gotten gains with his pretty companion on a beach somewhere (much like in “The Shawshank Redemption” or 1993’s “True Romance.”) You’ll have to check it out at the theater (beginning October 27) or streaming on Netflix November 10th to see if the killer achieves his goal.
“The Killer” is a thoroughly enjoyable 118 minutes of engrossing filmmaking.