David Fincher’s 12th feature film, The Killer (2023) is a technical masterwork with hawkeye definition. The film has a lean, slick feel, without a single blemish in its frames, and most importantly, carries the same sort of standoffish cool as what one would expect from the rest of Fincher’s films.
Despite Fincher’s professed hatred for the word, to call him an auteur would not be inaccurate. The Killer has everything characteristic of Fincher’s own style: yellow moody lighting; sharp leanness; meat without the fat; psychopaths, killers, murders…
Yet in comparison to his previous works, there’s something different, almost playful about The Killer. Fincher’s directed a slew of murder and thriller cult classics, such as Se7en (1995), Zodiac (2010), and Gone Girl (2013) but The Killer feels less like it’s trying to be another cult classic and more like the director’s playful satirical experiment, parodying his own genre.
Our main character is an unnamed killer (Michael Fassbender), who we follow as he hops from city to city, killing and killing. Each time he kills, he picks up another fake passport, changing his identity. The Killer is every bit as suspenseful, exciting, and masterfully crafted as anything directed by David Fincher, except, our antihero is dressed not like a badass killer but more like a bumbling German tourist, complete with a ridiculous bucket hat, and rides an electric scooter that sounds like a child’s toy machine. Even more, he listens to The Smiths on an old MP3, does yoga with the deliberation of an old man, and drives old, beat-up cars: the odd retro devices playfully contrast with the sharpness of digital film. It’s almost like Fincher poking fun at his own style.
What I found hilarious about this film was that, despite being incredibly insistent, Fassbender was—not to mince words—a terrible killer: he misses his shots and clearly displays empathy, delaying certain killings instead of making them as swift as possible.
Unlike Fincher’s other thrillers, The Killer doesn’t attempt to redeem the main character—Fassbender stays the same hungry wolf he is throughout the entire film. Rather, The Killer conjures a caricature out of the canonical movie killer, presenting a character satire adapted from a comic book. There’s an entertaining cognitive dissonance between Fincher’s technical style and the content of the genre, and it gets funnier and funnier as you watch it.
The Killer opens with a shot of Fassbender preparing his first kill from a WeWork in Paris. When I watched the film in cinemas, there was, precariously, a WeWork stationed right across the movie theater. (This joke was impossible to foreshadow when the film came out, but WeWork just filed for bankruptcy). Take this as another one of Fincher’s subtle jabs at American capitalism. These visual gags pair seamlessly with Andrew Kevin Walker’s macabre script, littered with uncomfortable humor. From horror movie quips about “burying a body” to religious humor of a “last supper,” these jokes transform our relationship to The Killer’s violence, nudging it towards satire rather than pure gore.
The Killer is also comedic simply because of how much the seriousness of the film depends on Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ razor-sharp playlist. If you replaced any song on the soundtrack with something else or just left Fassbender’s monotone voice overs, it’s almost like our killer is on a holiday wanderlust road trip instead of a zero-sum kill streak.
Fincher collaborates with his usual suspects, culminating in yet another technical masterwork. Erik Messerchmidt’s voyeuristic cinematography plays with distance and close proximity—he peeks into windows from the street across, then lets us get uncomfortably close to Fassbender’s physicality, most of all the leanness of his character. Things you notice: baseball hats that make a cruel angle across his cheekbones, how ridiculously athletic he looks just walking through a crowd of ordinary people, and how simply intimidating Fassbender, with his monstrous physicality, looks compared to the people he kills, regardless of how much power they have.
Despite the underlying technical coldness of The Killer, there’s a comfortable mundanity in the movie that gets more entertaining the closer you look at the details. Fassbender’s catchphrase is “Trust no one. Forbid empathy,” yet his delivery is painfully unconvincing: you can hear his voice quivering and getting higher-pitched as the film progresses.
The killer’s just like everyone else; he’s not a badass. He’s just another dude, like us, but his job happens to involve a little bit of killing on the side. He eats a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich at McDonald’s without the bread because, of course, the bread in the McMuffin is stale. He plays Wordle, he gulps down store-bought coffee. Not quite the badass killer you’d expect. In fact, he’s just as pathetic as everyone else.
Just another day for our killer; just another extraordinary movie for David Fincher.