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What would John Wilkes Booth do?

Movie

The Killer
(2023)

 

Fincher doing what he does best: unabashed genre vehicles with personality. Not his personality, obviously – although that does come into The Killer – but a point of view that draws you into a world. At one stage in the proceedings, a victim responds to the title character’s prior action by calling it juvenile, and there’s a certain truth to such a charge with regard to the director’s oeuvre; he recently commented, “I will never be a more mature film-maker. I will carry the 12-year-old me with me wherever I go”. It’s a curious dichotomy, coming from one so meticulous in applying his craft, that the material rarely seems to match the effort put into it; I hasten to emphasise that I’m not dismissing Fincher’s elevation of genre and B-movies, simply suggesting someone who spends so long nurturing projects really ought to make sure they have rock-solid foundations.

Indeed, most frequently, it’s Fincher’s attempts to “stretch” himself that have shown sticking to the 12-year-old him might be the optimum plan; Mank was mostly a venerable chore, any emotional resonance intended with the perverse premise of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button eluded him, and Zodiac – with which I was initially impressed – floundered in its attempts to knock an unsolved case into a persuasively dramatic work. Only The Social Network really hits the stride of “important” and stylistic that suggests a prestige filmmaker. Equally, though, more recent genre efforts (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl) have left much to be desired. One has to go back as far as Panic Room to find him operating tautly and effectively in that arena (in some respects, The Killer forms something of a trilogy of narrative economy with Seven and Panic Room; The Game is a shaggy dog story dressed as a thriller).

In this regard, a recent Rolling Stone profile called The Killerone of his lowbrow exercises in high style, closer to something like Panic Room or The Game than, say, The Social Network”. Fincher averred “People could say that I’m aiming low, but as someone who’s done it: It’s really hard. It’s not as easy as it sometimes seems”. That it’s taken him 20 years to come up with something as honed and concise as his earlier pictures suggests there’s something in that. Of course, this is the age of Hollywood bloat, and the economy of The Killer – in concept, scale of action, running time, size of cast – is fairly uncommon. Obviously, this doesn’t necessarily reflect its cost, since it’s both a Fincher film and a Netflix one. 

Of which, he apparently told the streaming giant “I’m going to do it stripped-down. This is a Don Siegel movie. It’s a fucking Michael Winner movie. It’s Charley Varrick, Get Carter, The Mechanic. This is meant to be ballistic”. It’slike a good B-movie”. Clearly, The Killer is nothing like a Michael Winner movie (least of all You Must Be Joking! or Hannibal Brooks), and one thing Fincher isn’t is a purveyor of grit, something you associate with Siegel. But you get his point (“I was interested in the assassin as a tension-delivery device”). He’s clear about the movie he wants to make here, and he maintains focus throughout, something you can’t say of the lurid digressions and thematic kinks of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Gone Girl.

He had the project in mind for about a decade-and-a-half before making it (based on Alexis Matz Nolent’s graphic novel of the same name. Nolent also wrote a draft of the screenplay: Stallone turkey Bullet to the Head was earlier adapted from one of his graphic novels, and another, Cyclops, has been option by James Mangold). Fincher reunites with Andrew Kevin Walker, briefly all the rage post-Seven but whose brand of horror-thriller chic quickly fell into decline. There’s a sense here that’s almost the reverse of Seven; there, the sheer stylistic and cast accoutrements inflated what would otherwise have simply been a bog-standard serial-killer thriller. Here, the (conflicting) internal monologue of the assassin (Michael Fassbender, persuasively cast as a sociopath) is essential to the meaning and understanding of the piece, skewing it closer to Fight Club in method, if less so in terms of form and function. 

The Killer’s hit, set up as a matter of functional inevitability via the depiction of his waiting routine and repeated mantras/aphorisms, goes wrong, and he soon finds himself out for “justice” against those involved in a retaliatory hit upon him (or more especially, because it comprised his girlfriend’s torture). Fincher and Walker offer us six chapters, each with a different location and focus – Paris/the Target; Dominican Republic/ The Hideout; New Orleans/The Lawyer; Florida/The Brute; New York/The Expert; Chicago/ The Client – and a different approach to mechanics of tension. The final three relate to relatively straightforward goals: the two assassins (Sala Baker and Tilda Swinton respectively) sent after him and the Client, Claybourne (Arliss Howard), who ordered the initial hit and then approved the response to its failure. 

The first three find the Killer inflicting collateral damage, or at least perpetrating acts on those at-worst indirectly involved in his targets/targeting him. First, there’s the dominatrix (Monique Ganderton) who steps into his sights at just the wrong moment. Then there’s his extreme prejudice in meting out punishment on anyone instrumental in the assault on Magdala (Sophie Charlotte), most evident in the fate of Leo (Gabriel Polanco), the taxi driver unfortunate enough to have ferried the Brute and the Expert to the Killer’s Dominic Republic retreat (the reasoning here, beyond scorched-earth vengeance, would be that Leo knows where he lives). 

The Lawyer Hodges (Charles Parnell) and his assistant Dolores (Kerry O’Malley) are guilty of facilitating any actions; the former suffers a particularly nasty case of nail-gun retribution, unremorseful in his responses (if Claybourne is to be believed, it was Hodges who suggested the counter-hit). The latter contributes the reactions of a victim who perceives the movie’s protagonist as a standard, terrifying antagonist, one who may/will snuff her out at any moment; the distinction being that she recognises her complicity, knows the darkness of the enterprise in which she has been involved herself (“I’m not a bad person. I’m not”) and pleads – successfully, as it turns out – for mercy in terms of how the Killer will arrange her demise (ie her children will still get the insurance pay-out from her death).

All of which serves to emphasise the breakdown in the paraphernalia of efficiency and exactitude the Killer has reiterated during the opening stages (Fassbender was reportedly after material similar to Le Samuraï, and The Killer certainly emulates it with regard to an assassin who identifies himself with a code yet does remarkably stupid, and imprecise, things in service of it). Fincher mounts each sequence with comparable efficiency and exactitude, albeit his mission never unravels (although, more on the comparisons between protagonist and filmmaker shortly). 

The opening finds the protagonist pass from assured confidence in his routine to controlled panic as the situation goes awry (his flight from Paris, eluding authorities, is slickly and kinetically conveyed). It’s the first of a series of pulse-raising scenarios; his discovery of the scene of the crime at his Dominican Republic home betrays the queasy tension of a horror movie, while, as noted, the subjective shifts during his visit to the Lawyer allow us to see him through a victim’s eyes. The Brute represents the picture’s full-blown action sequence, a dirty and – yes – brutal fight in semi-darkness with an unstoppable hulk (Baker’s a stuntman who, among various credited roles, embodied Sauron in The Lord of the Rings). It’s edge-of-the-seat gripping, even if the subsequent pursuit by pit bull is scarier (and mercifully shorter). 

In all of these, the precision the Killer boasts is thrown into sharp relief (he’s clearly very capable, but his technique gets a hooker killed, kills the Lawyer much more quickly than he anticipated, fails to dose the dog as resoundingly as he expected, and leaves him barely escaping the Brute with his life). In contrast, the final two episodes are ones of measured confrontation and conversation, where the Killer is invited to examine his own motivations, both in the mirror of a fellow assassin with a little more self-awareness, and someone with significantly more extensive culpability than (some of) those he earlier showed no hesitation in dispatching. 

The exhilarating part of The Killer is that it’s working entirely to Fincher’s strengths. A director who prides himself on exactitude (even if his standards can be elusive and frustrating to others and perhaps too, at times, to himself) is always going to be delivering more strongly when the material reflects that sensibility. Admittedly, part and parcel of his approach is a penchant for dour, unforgiving, sickly green-yellow cinematography, a neo-noir of his own devising that has never been as commanding since he switched to digital (Erik Messerschimdt returns from Mank, a visual fizzle in its digital black and white lack of lustre, Oscar or no). 

There are times when Fincher’s primary affinities are at odds with his subjects (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button most singularly), but such grimdark sensibilities are mostly of a piece (this in contrast to a Janusz Kamiński, confoundingly affixing the same two-tone veneer to whatever the deceased Spielberg was applying himself to next). The Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score is as reliably attuned as ever, while The Smiths on the soundtrack… Well, I can readily appreciate Fincher’s starting point – “I always knew that I wanted to use How Soon is Now?’ because I love the guitar” – but holding as I do an abiding distaste for Morrisey’s crooning, I consider it simply indicative of the Killer’s jaundiced disposition – “a kind of stained-glass window into who this guy was” – that he should be accompanied everywhere by such doleful dirges. I take Fincher’s point when he says “originally, we had an entire soundtrack that was Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, full-on pre-goth. It was really cool, and really interesting, but you kept asking yourself, ‘Is he a music critic?’” but something to alleviate the pervading Moz-ness of his persona would have been welcome.

Of course, this curated persona, and the self-deception under which he abides, is the very core of The Killer. Those mantras with which he introduces himself and which repeats with increasing uncertainty until the end, where he admits their artifice, are an indication of arrested development, the cool of teen-goth chic or youthful attitudinising, but not something any self-respecting adult should be carrying around.

An element of this is the cake-and-eat persona of the assassin himself: it’s that of the styled movie assassin, a psychopath revealed as exhibiting emotional range through others he cares for (Léon, for example), one capable of leading a normal life and who is (possibly) seen embarking on the same in the epilogue. Fincher and Walker are clear that he’s “a sociopath who may not have a lot of emotional bandwidth” and discussed how to avoid making him seem entirely morally reprehensible and loathsome (to “give somebody something that’s compelling to watch, rather than repulsing them”). He shouldn’t really be devoted to Magdala, should perceive her as expendable (Heat-mantra style, at minimum), but for the purposes of his “unreliable narrator” (well, not quite “unreliable monologuer” would be more accurate), she’s a key part of his conundrum.

The untenable nature of a “normal” person – that is, one who empathises and is therefore not a sociopath – adopting the Killer’s career path and lifestyle choices is underlined by his entirely absurd tenets, the constructs of a pimpled nihilist; we’re born, we live life, we die. He’s just a part (ie insignificant), a cog in a machine, one who can summon statistics to justify the insignificance of lives taken (all this to countenance a mask of detachment. Which, of course, would pose little problem to a fully fledged psychopath). 

Much of the Killer’s philosophising comprises a brand of materialist emptiness ushered in with evolutionary theory; he scoffs at anything more than a “cold infinite void” when it comes to the Great Beyond, notions of karma, or “faith in mankind’s inherent goodness” (because, this would mean he was held accountable for his actions). He tells us “I’m not here to take sides. It’s not my place to formulate an opinion. No one who can afford me needs to waste time winning me to some cause”. He serves no god, country, flies no flag.

Per the indifference of an unintelligent design, he’d like to posit himself as a mere engine, a mechanical apparatus producing a product (hence The Killer’s signposting of such mass-production like MacDonald’s – humans are meat – and Amazon, utterly impersonal, globally pervasive and useful for facilitating a killer’s tools of trade. Is the disused WeWork office of the opening an immediate signposting that such corporate-down, “just a part” constructs are inherently flawed?)

Pretty much every one of the Killer’s dictums is revealed as fundamentally untrue to his actions (“Stick to the plan… Trust no one… Never improvise… Never yield an advantage… Fight only the battle you’re paid to fight”). But it isn’t as if he’s only now succumbing to “weakness”; he’s evidently been playing fast and loose for some time, or he wouldn’t be with Magdala: his core lie of “If I’m effective, it’s because of one simple fact. I… don’t… give… a… fuck” is disproven because he does and has. He cannot embody his mantras; he wouldn’t even need to, were he an unflinching assassin in the Jackal mould: “Forbid empathy. Empathy is weakness. Weakness is vulnerability”. He empathises with his girlfriend. Everything he does in response to her injury is a renege on his every pronouncement of life purpose (“How’s I don’t give a fuck going?”) He will show “weakness” by allowing Dolores a verifiable, insurable death and pulls back from the expectation of offing Claybourne. 

Why? Most comments I’ve seen argue it’s because he believes him (and sufficient doubts have now accumulated in his mind regarding the validity of his creed). I prefer that it’s down to practical considerations. Having embarked on a course in direct violation of his principles, the Killer then violates the principles of that course, recognising “Risky, this one” beforehand – he initially decides “Fuck it” – since there’s significantly less chance of his eluding detection for offing such a high-profile, monied individual. There is, after all, little reason to take Claybourne at his word regarding his novice status ordering hits and less reason for that to affect his decision whether to let him live, considering his preceding impunity; he’s a billionaire businessman and the Killer’s response to his waffling self-exoneration is “I’m curious. I break into your home in the middle of the night, with a silenced pistol, and you have no idea, why I might be here?” so he hardly takes his assurances at face value… Or maybe he does, because he simply isn’t that sharp. Or maybe it’s me, and I just don’t buy Howard playing Claybourne as genuine in his plea. The character seems inherently slippery. 

Claybourne is one of the few who exploit the many who have, in the Killer’s estimation, forever dictated civilisation’s path (so on that basis, one might have good reason to believe he’d subsequently elect to come after the Killer). Has the Killer retired at the end? He’s still offering up aphorisms (“Fate is a placebo, the only life path is the one behind you”), but he now identifies himself with the rest of us, the – presumably – empathic masses: “Well maybe you’re not one of the few. Maybe you’re just like me. One of the many”. 

The Expert earlier tried to extract the Killer’s motives in coming to her restaurant table, given there was absolutely no reason it was necessary to completing his task. She is, obviously, crafty (since she plans to have a go at getting the better of him, hence that dagger) but she also displays the tone of a more seasoned veteran, having dispensed with the pretences of existential justification for doing what they do; she asks him if he expected to feel reassured of his sense of self through the confrontation, the same having previously deserted him per his failure to execute his assignment. And his even being there, in the open, bruised and recognisable, unforgivably reneges on his principles. There’s also the reading, which I hadn’t considered, that the joke she tells – the reason the hunter returns to the bear-buggering woods – is analogising the Killer’s thrill from flirting with his own demise on every assignment (and indeed, in seeking revenge). Albeit, that would arguably be inherent of anyone engaging in a high-risk profession.

Being a Fincher film, there’s a serial-killer reference (Gary Ridgway the Green River Killer). There’s also, perhaps pointedly, a leading line towards the arcane. The Killer identifies an ambivalent path, one untouched by polarities of preference – subjective notions of good and evil and morality – and justifies this with “Do what thou wilt” (“To quote… someone. I can’t remember who”). The who he can’t remember is Aleister Crowley, of course, and consequently the ethos would, if the Killer could recall, expressly align him with the dark path.

Pretty much every interview Fincher has given on The Killer has asked if there’s an auteurish connection with his protagonist. He’s fluctuated in his response, presumably depending on boredom at repeatedly answering the same question or an essential ambivalence towards a rather glib interpretation. He admitted to The GuardianThere are certain parallels. It’s very technical. It’s about getting the shot… I think it’s always interesting to watch somebody use their tools with great precision”. But when asked the same by GQ, he replied “No. But I can see why the weak-minded…”  

Because the more pertinent connection between the two might be that Fincher, like the Killer, has favoured himself above it all, charting a Hollywood career that has seen him consider himself untouched by polarities – by Hats both White and Black; Fassbender’s is off-white-ish with an off-black-ish stripe (okay, more green and brown) – while flirting with many of the darker hue’s preoccupations and leading lights. He’s told himself such considerations are unimportant, irrelevant, wrapping himself in the comfort blanket of cosmic inconsequence, preoccupying himself with a social fabric flaunting serial killers and gender mutability, treating the details with the same kind of meticulous precision as Kubrick while devoid of the underlying thematic substance (whether Kubrick’s substance was, variously, Black or White Hatted). 

Fincher has flown a singular flag of shallow cool, even when commenting on the same, and has been unconvinced or dismissive when it comes to anything pertaining to the metaphysical (one of the reason The Curious Case of Benjamin Button succeeds in being pat and unaffecting); his most layered film, Fight Club, is at once as restricted by the “reality” of materialism as it is confrontational of its essential ephemerality, because Fincher hasn’t developed a consciousness beyond such preoccupations (it’s perhaps the starkest contrast between the ever-reaching Vincent Ward’s conception of Alien³ and Fincher’s bleakly deterministic approach). Is The Killer’s denouement the director admitting his too-cool-for-school is unsustainable?

All the preceding weightiness said, The Killer’s often very funny. Certainly, the funniest of his movies since the ’90s. Those opening monologues are punctuated by quirks amid the self-motivating guff, which he will disregard anyway (I kept wondering about all the times he wasn’t paying attention at the window as he charted his code) – “Popeye the Sailor probably said it best”; “Of the many lies told by the military-industrial complex, my favourite is still their claim that sleep deprivation didn’t qualify as torture” – while his choice of sitcom characters for his alternate identities might be precisely the thing you don’t want to do to remain inconspicuous (how many clerks, cashiers or customs officials are habitually going to comment “Oh, just like X out of X”?): Archibald Bunker (All in the Family), David Madison (Moonlighting), Sam Malone (Cheers), Howard Cunningham (Happy Days), Robert Hartley (The Bob Newhart Show), Lou Grant (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and Oscar Madison (The Odd Couple) were the ones I noticed (there were also  Felix Unger from The Odd Couple, Reuben Kincaird from The Partridge Family and George Jefferson from All in the Family). The funniest moment, in the most unsettling way, is Dolores’ involuntary laughter when a passenger in the lift quips to the Killer, dressed as sanitation worker and in command of a wheelie bin (containing Hodges), “Need any help getting rid of that body?

The Killer: Ask yourself, “What’s in it for me?”

Like the Killer, Fincher is neither exceptional nor a genius. And like him, his skillset is often belied by unexceptional results. Had he the acumen to continue on the track he seemed to be on up to Fight Club, tackling distinctive and off-kilter properties in a commanding way (or in Seven’s case, crafting a run-of-the-mill project into one punching above its weight), he might have become a great. But then, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Mank suggest certain tones and textures are simply outside his wheelhouse. There’s no shame in sticking to what you do well, and more “safe bet” projects like The Killer would be very welcome.

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