There’s a thin line between self-reflection and self-parody, and The Killer, starring Michael Fassbender, comes dangerously close to crossing it a few too many times.
The time for mothballing the philosophical hitman subgenre has long come and gone, but David Fincher’s The Killer might revive the debate all over again. Filled with expertly composed sequences undone by the protagonist’s relentless observations about the meaninglessness of existence, the movie feels like an attempt to highlight its own emptiness. Based on Alexis Nolent’s French comic Le Tueur, it follows a professional assassin (Michael Fassbender) as he deals with the consequences of a botched hit job. But mostly it’s about him explaining to us in voiceover, somewhat endlessly, his approach to life. To the point of absurdity. It could be a great comedy if Fincher and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker would let it.
To be fair, I think the movie is meant to be sort of funny, in a dry, existential way. (The opening credits sequence features a rapid-fire series of shots featuring various killing implements — knives, guns, grenades, pills, detonators, poison, snakes, etc. — playfully promising exactly the kind of film we’re not about to get. It’s the funniest thing in the picture.) At times I was reminded of Anton Corbijn’s The American, a film in which George Clooney assembled a gun for two hours. But there, the focus on workaday process achieved a bleak sensuousness. Here, with the protagonist’s endless blathering, things tip too often towards inadvertent silliness. Leaning further into the comedy might have worked, but Fassbender’s submerged performance and Fincher’s controlled direction are a bit too cool to be deadpan. They should have brought back Leslie Nielsen from the dead for this one.
I suspect there’s a bit of auto-critique here, however. The film opens with a 20-minute sequence of our protagonist (we never hear his real name, though at various points he goes by Unger, Madison, Jefferson, Cunningham, Malone, and other aliases) as he painstakingly prepares for a hit in an abandoned Paris WeWork. “It’s amazing how physically exhausting it can be to do nothing,” he tells us. “If you’re not able to endure boredom, this work is not for you.” That’s the kind of thing they say on film sets. I imagine they probably say that even more on Fincher’s film sets, as the director is famous for his perfectionist, control freak approach, which likely keeps vast portions of his cast and crew waiting for hours. So there may be a sly self-reflectiveness to Fincher’s approach here, almost as if he’s taking the piss out on himself. But there’s a thin line between self-reflection and self-parody, and The Killer comes dangerously close to crossing it a few too many times.
Most of the killer’s preparation has to do not with getting his tools ready but doing lots and lots of yoga, getting lots of sleep, and picking his playlist — so that he’s fully relaxed, with his heart beating 60 times per minute, when he pulls the trigger on that rifle. (“It’s the idle hours that most often lead a man to ruin.”) He reminds us, over and over again, that he’s a professional and that he doesn’t care about the person he’s killing, or why: “No one who can afford me needs to waste time winning me over to some cause.” The film is filled with product names and logos — not just WeWork but also Amazon, McDonald’s, and more. How telling then that the main character doesn’t have a name, but everything else around him does. (“From the beginning of time, the few have exploited the many,” the killer helpfully reminds us. “This is the cornerstone of civilization.”)
But then, he misses, kills the wrong person instead of his assigned target, and things go haywire. (“Well, this is new. WWJWBD. What would John Wilkes Booth do?”) He methodically makes his escape back to his Dominican Republic hideout, but discovers that his girlfriend has been beaten to within an inch of her life by thugs presumably working for the people who originally hired him. So, he’s now part of a clean-up operation. He quickly, coolly makes his way around the U.S., making stray observations along the way (New Orleans: “A thousand restaurants, one menu.” Florida: “Maybe a 30-day waiting period for creatine is not a bad idea.”), as he finds and kills the people who tried to find and kill him, all of whom are simply going about their business, unaware that the hit is now out on them. (“Even I have to remind myself that the only life path is the one behind you.”) The alienation these people feel from the general pattern of what’s transpiring seems purposeful: Here they were, in the midst of a manhunt just 24 or so hours ago, and now they’re at the gym, or at their favorite restaurant, or hanging out with their buds. “Am I supposed to know who you are?” one of them asks.
Look, we get it. Boy, do we get it. “Stick to the plan. Anticipate, don’t improvise,” our killer says to himself when getting ready for a hit. “Empathy is weakness. Weakness is vulnerability.” He presumably has to say these things over and over because that’s the only way to distance himself from his actions. He says early on that he uses music to keep his inner voice from wandering. It’s not really working, of course. The film isn’t unaware of what it is. All of Fincher’s pictures are ultimately about questioning their heroes’ conceptions of the world, and The Killer is no different. It’s ultimately a movie about its own pointlessness.