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film review

The Killer

Directed by David Fincher

Written by Andrew Kevin Walker, based on the graphic novel by Alexis “Matz” Nolent and Luc Jacamon

Starring Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton and Arliss Howard

Classification N/A; 118 minutes

Opens in select theatres Oct. 27; streaming on Netflix starting Nov. 10

Critic’s Pick

With his reputation for cold, calculating precision, there doesn’t seem to be much ocular space left in the demanding eyes of David Fincher to focus on comedy, that loosest and most improvisational of art forms. Yet here he is – the perfectionist of Se7en and Zodiac who notoriously requires as many takes from his actors as he does fine-pixel analysis from his visual-effects team – making his first true comedy with the excellent new hitman tale, The Killer.

Not that Fincher is wading into Judd Apatow territory. Other than shamelessly borrowing a title from one of John Woo’s best films, Fincher is in pure pioneer mode here, inventing a new kind of cinematic humour that can only come from his own uniquely icy perspective of the world. This is brutal, high-impact filmmaking that delivers its visual punchlines with the patience of a sharpshooter and the menace of a sociopath who has put in his 10,000 Malcolm Gladwell-style hours of practice in not caring about anyone or anything. This is David Fincher’s version of a sitcom: as violently funny as it is hilariously violent.

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If that sitcom label sounds like a stretch, then consider the first few minutes of The Killer, which will make the idea as real as a live studio audience. Not only does the opening-credits sequence arrive jarringly fast and without warning – the movie begins with a quick Netflix logo before assaulting the audience with thudding techno music and quick-flash title cards, cut together like an NBC editor was high on uppers – but Michael Fassbender’s lead character also uses aliases exclusively borrowed from classic network-TV comedies.

Fincher even gives this particular game away early, with the first alias being the hard-to-miss “Felix Unger” (The Odd Couple), before the film references slightly more lost-to-time name-drops, including “Reuben Kincaid” (The Partridge Family) and “Howard Cunningham” (Happy Days). All that’s missing is a laugh track – though that will presumably be provided by the movie-going audience once they cotton on to the conceit.

Like most sitcoms, there isn’t much of a story to The Killer – this is strictly an A-to-B narrative in the surprisingly prolific “contract-kill-goes-wrong” genre. (There are already two more such films playing the fall festival circuit: Richard Linklater’s Hit Man and Michael Keaton’s Knox Goes Away.) But instead of complicating the genre, Fincher strips things down to the (funny) bone. This is a story that knocks you down with its homicidal quips, rather than killing you softly with its set-up.

The film opens in Paris, where a nameless hitman (Fassbender) is patiently waiting to pull the trigger on his latest mark, some wealthy so-and-so who someone far wealthier wants dead, for reasons unknown. As Fassbender’s character reminds the audience – he narrates the film with the kind of confident, calm serenity that recalls an especially menacing motivational speaker a la Tony Robinson – if you want to do this kind of work, you have to separate yourself from any national, social or political interests. Someone pays you to kill someone else, and you figure out how and when, but not why. Just so long as you’re careful about it.

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Tilda Swinton in a scene from The Killer.Netflix

Except this time, our title character is not so careful. One fatal mistake, and now our killer is on the run from his shadowy employer. Which is when Fincher’s film pushes the humour harder, faster, meaner. Bodies are just gags to be cleaned up, and cleaning up is best sound-tracked to the Smiths. (If Morrissey wasn’t a vegan already, this film’s many murders might turn him into one.)

There is one brawl between Fassbender and a muscled-up adversary that especially underlines the fine line that Fincher walks between carnage and comedy – including the second-best onscreen use of a cheese grater this year (coming in just behind Evil Dead Rise). There is a real and thrilling hum and buzz to the all action – a devilish energy underlined by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s head-pounding score that puts it directly in line with the rest of Fincher’s dark-heart canon.

Travelling from New Orleans to the Dominican Republic to New York – always staying in hotels near the tarmac or train tracks, booming vibrations replacing any threat of dead air – the film’s killer displays the mind, methods and momentum of other Fincher anti-heroes. There’s the hellish corporate-travel rituals of the Narrator in Fight Club, the sociopathic manners of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, the obsessiveness-is-next-to-godliness of Robert Graysmith in Zodiac. And Fassbender pulls the challenging job off with a deceptively breezy ease. He plays an empty man with no past to mourn, only a plan to execute. Yet we will come to care deeply for his survival.

Without being familiar with the film’s source material – a French graphic novel written by Alexis “Matz” Nolent and illustrated by Luc Jacamon – it is hard to say whether Fincher is either adapting or inventing the film’s other big, fat genre wrinkle: its obsession with corporate brands. But as the director slips in Starbucks and Postmates and WeWork into the proceedings, it’s clear that he is putting his own uniquely American stamp on a European story. Almost as if Fincher is positioning products as criminal accomplices. After all, Fassbender’s character can hardly get his job done without the unwitting help of Amazon or Avis.

Already, there are complaints that The Killer is too light of a lark, almost a clearing of the system for Fincher after getting bogged down in old Hollywood grudge matches with the 2020 drama Mank. But even without the massive historical weight of, say, The Social Network or the decades-spanning horror of Zodiac, The Killer arrives fully formed as top-tier Fincher. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.

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