Review: In David Fincher’s The Killer, Michael Fassbender Is an Exacting, Exhilarating Assassin with Something to Prove

The professional assassin who stands at the center of director David Fincher’s latest, The Killer, is never given a name, and I’m guessing that's exactly how the character (played to icy perfection by Michael Fassbender, marking his first onscreen appearance in four years) prefers it. Rather than tell the story of an assassin who is defined by his jobs, Fincher and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) construct a profile of a man by showing us his methodical approach to his work. He’s a killer who prides himself on never having made a mistake on the job: his targets are all dead. And as we open the film by watching him from his perch, patiently waiting for his target to show himself at the apartment building across the street (I believe the opening is set in Paris), we have every reason to believe this next one will be dead shortly as well.

Through frequently relentless narration and careful observation, we learn every aspect of The Killer’s process—from the clothes he wears when walking around in public so as not to stand out in any way (he calls it the “German tourist” look) to the way he keeps his heart-rate down just as he’s pulling the trigger (apparently, listening to The Smiths gets the job done). Fassbender’s narration, like most of the film, is fairly direct, informative, and with very little fat, but it’s also weirdly warm, as if he’s trying to throw us off the scent of just how twisted and cold-blooded this guy is.

The reason we’re dropped into his life at this particular moment is that we’re about to witness his first on-the-job mistake; he actually misses his elusive target with no chance, probably ever, for a second shot. The Killer packs up his gear, wipes down his hideout, and gets the hell out of dodge as he contacts his employer, a lawyer named Hodges (Charles Parnell), who makes it clear that restitution must be made, and our antihero knows exactly what that means. He heads to his home somewhere in South America only to find out that his girlfriend Magdala (Sophie Charlotte) has been brutalized and is in the hospital, barely able to speak. But she does manage to get out rough descriptions of her two attackers, and that’s all Fassbender needs to slip back into assignment mode and track down his next victims. These will be the only targets he kills out of emotion, rather than for money.

Based on the graphic novel series written by Alexis Nolent and illustrated by Luc Jacamon, The Killer is basically a profile of a guy who is exceptional at his job because he has an exacting set of standards and rules that he keeps to without fail. It’s always fascinating to watch people like this because of their dedication and expertise, so even when he’s out of revenge, Fassbender’s character rarely strays from his patterns. He seeks out his boss, engages the services of his boss’s knowledgeable secretary (Kerry O’Malley), finds the two people who were at his home (The Brute, played by Sala Baker, and The Expert, played by Tilda Swinton). The scene in which Fassbender and Swinton finally come face to face could have been its own short film; the way she rambles on across from him at a fancy dinner table, knowing her death is coming, is something to behold. And finally, he seeks out the original client (Arliss Howard), who might be the least guilty in what happened to the girlfriend, but does that matter in the end?

At this point in Fincher’s career, he’s collected co-workers who just know how to deliver a David Fincher movie. His cinematographer, his editor, and certainly the composers (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) who wrote the score to The Killer are all people the filmmaker has worked with before this movie, so if some parts of it feel familiar, it’s because Fincher is pulling these very capable tools from his impressive toolbox. But that doesn’t mean he’s stopped being inventive. For example, there’s a fight sequence between Fassbender and Baker in The Brute’s house that is unlike anything I’ve seen in a Fincher movie, and outside of most of John Wick Chapter 4, is the best fight scene I’ve seen all year. He’s neither reinventing himself with each new movie, nor is he copying himself from film to film; he’s building upon his repertoire, and that’s what makes him interesting. 

From the lightning-fast opening credits to the abrupt ending, The Killer isn’t interested in lingering in a particular moment, even if its main character is an expert at just that. It moves and weaves through its story and the mind of the assassin in a way that doesn’t give the viewers a chance to realize they’re rooting for a murderer-for-hire, and that’s exhilarating.

The film begins streaming Friday on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.