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  • Writer's pictureJames Green

'The Killer' (dir. David Fincher) Film Review | JG Review

Updated: Oct 7, 2023

The Killer, dir. David Fincher (113mins) | In Theatres October 27th, Netflix November 10th
CREDIT: Netflix, British Film Institute

Dearest reader, I left this film feeling flummoxed. The Killer is an enjoyable film - I liked it quite a bit - but it's ending was so flat, so hollow, that it left me quite confused. Sure, I spent the majority of the flick hooked, but I'm unsure how I actually feel about the project as a whole. It's not often I leave a screening with this absence of clarity, but when I do suffer from Confusion's malaise I find it's easiest to deconstruct the whole, to divide the sum into its various parts, inspect them individually, and come to an informed conclusion. Shall we begin?

The cast of The Killer is relatively small and relies almost entirely on the performance of Michael Fassbender, who plays the nameless 'The Killer' (our hitman-gone-rogue protagonist) with impressive intensity. He is, predictably, very good, and proves to be well-suited to the noir stylisation of Fincher's filmmaking. He rarely speaks diegetically within the film, with most of his vocal performance delivered through a stream-of-consciousness voiceover. This choice is creatively intriguing, but Fassbender's 'I'm Batman'-esque cadence is initially a little grating.

We are introduced to his character as he prepares for a high-stakes hit-job, as he explains via voiceover the apathy he has towards the ethics of his murderous career. His belief systems are immediately challenged, however, when he misses his shot and kills a 'non-target'--the first time he's done so. It's the ramifications of this mistake which drive forward The Killers' plot, inviting personally devastating consequences into 'The Killer's life and forcing him to eventually adopt a new worldview.

If you'll forgive the random comparison, it's a character arc not unlike that of Christopher Ecclestone's 'Ninth Doctor' in Doctor Who, which sees the hardened war vet softened by various people he encounters, and his empathy thus gradually restored. This is, in my opinion, a compelling and classic character arc, but Fincher seems less convinced. The director seems frankly uninterested in his lead's emotional journey, and it feels almost deliberately hard to perceive as a result, like trying to find the number in a polka-dot test for colourblindness.

Evidently, Fincher finds much more pleasure in the (wildly successful) violence, crime and action that fills out most of the 113-minute runtime. Nowhere is this pleasure more evident than in the film's Floridian house-break sequence, which sees Fassbender take on a shockingly aggressive pitbull named Diva (yes, really) before confronting her roided-up owner in a terrifying fight. The action was brutal and bloody - I wasn't the only one squirming in my seat - and contained some of the best fight choreography I've seen on-screen in a very long time. There was some great humour amidst the terror, too, with a Fiona Bruce cameo rousing a lot of laughter from the audience as Antiques Roadshow begun to play in the background of the gorey grapple.

This morning's screening of The Killer was subtitled for accessibility, and the extra information they provided about our Diva was quite stunning; "Diva growls" and "Diva snores" were particular favourites of mine, given my own habit of administering said moniker to...well, everyone I encounter. I expect screencaps of these moments will go viral on Twitter when The Killer drops on Netflix in early November.

Another nice detail can be found in the film's soundtrack, which acts as it's own running gag. In a style not dissimilar from Baby Driver, Fassbender's 'Killer' uses music to help focus his mind, and he appears to be a huge fan of The Smiths. No other artist seems to compare; every time he puts in his headphones, Morrisey begins to whine. The humour, though, comes with the fourth-wall breaking song selections. The song titles (helpfully clarified by the subtitles) all cleverly linked to what was happening in the plot. 'Girlfriend in a Coma' was spectacularly on the nose, as were 'Meat is Murder' and the forensic-defiant 'Hand in Glove'. While the inner workings of 'The Killer' remain fairly unreachable throughout the film, his penchant for Morrissey was sort-of endearing, and was successful in betraying his "norm-core" humanity.

One of the more uncomfortable moments in The Killer involves its use of 'fridging'--a sexist trope which introduces a female character whose sole narrative function is to fall victim to violence or murder and thus incentivise a reponse (and wider plot development) for the male lead. This being said, there are some other interesting female characters here. Tilda Swinton shines as 'The Expert', hilariously nicknamed 'the Q-Tip'. We have to wait for the film's final act before we get to meet her, demonstrating impressive restraint from Fincher (who was no doubt lobbied by Netflix to curate a front-loaded experience for the streaming age). Her chemistry with Fassbender is electric. I think we as a society need to do more to honour Swinton, who feels too ethereally alien to be called a National Treasure, but deserves nothing less all the same.

The Killer's component features, then, are all individually quite impressive; this is, to be sure, a slick and entertaining action thriller. So what went wrong here? Why is The Killer lesser than the sum of its parts? I think it comes down to directorial distraction, and back to The Killer's almost-absent character arc (which should underpin the film's entire emotional journey, and completely undermines it in its vacancy). It's also somewhat hard to connect to a character who only starts to care about human life when someone he loves gets hurt, making it even harder to fill in that emotional blank.

I know this isn't my best-written review. I've found this one really hard to write, actually, mainly because I just genuinely couldn't work out how I felt about this film when the lights came up. The easiest thing to decipher, ironically, was what star rating I'd give this flick; this is a better film than Saltburn, but definitely not as good as Priscilla, and a 4-star felt too generous given the confusion I feel writing this post. That's settled then, I suppose;


Written by James Green



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