December 9, 2023

David Fincher’s latest feature, The Killer, debuted on Netflix Friday night. The film is a meticulously crafted thriller that showcases both Fincher’s visionary eye and star Michael Fassbender’s magnetic subtlety.

The Killer follows an unnamed professional assassin who, after a job gone wrong, returns home to find his girlfriend has been attacked by a pair of hitmen his employer sent to tie up loose ends on behalf of the disappointed client. What ensues is, in some ways, a typical revenge story, with the Killer seeking out those who he faults for his girlfriend being hospitalized. But while most revenge thrillers are sometimes frenetic and often emotionally charged (think Braveheart, The Count of Monte Cristo, Man on Fire, Taken), The Killer is cold, calculating, methodical, and even philosophical, anchored by Fassbender’s performance and Fincher’s sharp, shadowy visuals.

The somewhat predictable plotting of The Killer is paced with almost mathematic precision, drawn out but occupied by the titular character’s stream-of-consciousness philosophical musings — a sort of anarchistic, Darwinian nihilism belying the Killer’s unbreakable commitment to and passion for his girlfriend — and punctuated with moments of sudden but emotionless violence.

Fincher’s vision beautifies, alienates, and humanizes the film. His characteristic use of shadows, natural light, and shades of blue, green, and yellow are well-utilized, suiting the various locations of Paris, the Dominican Republic, Louisiana, Florida, New York, and an industrially urban Chicago, as well as the mood of the overall film. Fincher has admitted that he micromanages his films and has a tendency toward autocracy, a trait that ensures the visual, narrative, emotional, and philosophical coherence of his films. The Killer greatly benefits from this end-to-end control: The taut but otherwise-typical thriller is elevated from the status of revenge flick to that of an intricate procedural — again, peppered with philosophical musings.

Fassbender also has a chance to show off, though his performance is far from presentational. His character is largely emotionless, convincing himself repeatedly: “Forbid empathy. Empathy is weakness. Weakness is vulnerability.” Another equally emotionless mantra: “Stick to your plan. Anticipate, don’t improvise. Trust no one. Never yield an advantage. Fight only the battle you’re paid to fight.” But beneath the mask of alienated professionalism, Fassbender brings recognizable and even relatable emotion to his character, discernible only through the actor’s masterful restraint.

Despite his self-professed emotionlessness, the Killer clearly has strong feelings for his girlfriend. After his job in Paris goes awry, the first thing he does is return to his home in the Dominican Republic, looking for his girlfriend, correctly anticipating that an “insurance” clause may have put her life in danger. His employer, an arrogant New Orleans lawyer, later expresses surprise at this, saying that surely if the Killer were smart, he would have simply “disappeared.” This duality — a professed avoidance of emotion and a deep emotional connection to at least one other person — is what makes the Killer such a compelling character. (READ MORE: When Hollywoke Becomes a Joke, It’s Over)

That duality is also a recurring theme throughout Fincher’s work. In the detective/serial killer film Se7en, Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) pits his professionalism and commitment to justice against his emotional attachments — namely, his wife. The film’s climax centers on his choice between the two. Just so, the Killer’s methodical, meticulous professionalism is pitted against his emotional commitment to his girlfriend.

Similarly, in Fight Club, the unnamed narrator/protagonist (Edward Norton) is drawn out of his emotionless, purposeless cog-in-the-wheel existence by the unhinged Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who (spoiler warning — though if you haven’t seen Fight Club yet, I don’t feel bad spoiling it; the movie premiered in 1999) is the narrator’s alter ego. Just as in Fight Club the narrator has to choose between an emotionless, mind-numbing life as a drone in the corporate hive or a journey as an anarchist who burns “the system” to the ground, so the also-unnamed Killer is forced to choose between continuing his cold, extremely lucrative existence as an assassin-for-hire or burn down “the system” he once served so well.

This theme of duality runs deep through Fincher’s films — Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, Gone Girl all explore this concept in their various ways — but is, perhaps, most frankly discussed in The Killer, largely via the protagonist’s almost-constant interior philosophical diatribe. The film is a thoughtful one; not an action-packed, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, but a sharp, cohesive, coherent invitation to ponder what in your own life is worth burning everything down for.