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‘The Killer’ review: When style over substance works

Ryan Oquiza

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‘The Killer’ review: When style over substance works
Michael Fassbender stars in David Fincher’s latest film about a cold-hearted hit man that is surprisingly slow on pace, loose on storytelling, yet entertaining nonetheless

This review contains minor spoilers.

Director David Fincher loves a good story about troubled people toying with murder. His breakout film, Se7en, was about a serial killer taunting detectives Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman after a string of gruesome murders. Zodiac recounts the eerie San Francisco murders committed by the genuine Zodiac killer in the late ’60s, and the endeavors of journalists and detectives to pursue him. And Gone Girl gives us Rosamund Pike’s wicked turn as Amy Dunne, who fakes her disappearance and makes his husband’s life a living hell. 

Central to these films are the perspectives that Fincher uses to anchor his narrative. One would think it would be interesting to turn our eyes solely on the grisly serial killer, deranged maniac, and psychopathic wife, but these characters are always assessed in conjunction with flawed and, at times, equally unbalanced protagonists. 

These “main character” archetypes typically resemble the Jake Gyllenhaals, Ben Afflecks, and Brad Pitts of the Fincher universe (including the ill-canceled Netflix series, Mindhunter, which everyone should go see). They are men who are completely at odds with the killers terrorizing their cities, but also completely fascinated and drawn to them — for better or worse. 

So it’s a shock that in Fincher’s latest noir thriller, The Killer, Michael Fassbender is both our protagonist AND our callous psychopath. It sets us off in an entirely new path that hasn’t yet been explored in Fincher’s filmography, but not in the way you expect. 

The film is slow, subdued, and sterile, especially when compared to the high-octane sleekness of his previous work. I attribute this to the fact that we no longer have that outside perspective that grounds us to the real world. We get to see a man master the craft of killing people and get away with it, and that involves dedicating a lot of time to the process of setting up the perfect murder.

It’s repetitive, for good reason, because this is how most hit men who really just substitute as serial killers are; cold, unfeeling, and, for lack of a better word, boring. I say all of that with confidence while simultaneously finding this film truly, and I mean truly, entertaining. It’s because the tedium is the point. Being a hit man is terrible. Long hours, no sleep, and it makes you lose your mind. Fincher shows us that being this detached from empathy and society might not be the romanticized dream people think it is. 

Split into five chapters, The Killer follows an unnamed hitman (Michael Fassbender) who begins a global quest to kill the people responsible for invading his personal life after a hit he was tasked to do goes wrong. We hear the killer’s inner monologues for most of the film, one of which is a mantra that he lives by all throughout the film: “Stick to the plan.”

So, the entire film is precisely that: sticking to the plan. Which, when translated to the conventions of feature-length storytelling, isn’t that much. But this time, I admired the admittedly messy bending of rules. After the hit man’s first screw-up, he spends the remaining runtime turning into the most ruthless and calculating person he can be, and that means following his procedure to a tee, no improvisations, just complete and utter perfection.

And if you know who David Fincher is as a director, this is a treat. A known perfectionist, Fincher revels at always grabbing the opportunity to do multiple takes, even in scenes that seem benign (watch this clip of Jake Gyllenhaal trying to perfect a simple book throw in 36 takes). It wouldn’t be far off to see this as Fincher finding a little bit of his obsessive self in his characters. 

Additionally, Fincher continues his exploration of masculine delusions (à la Fight Club), by pandering to the audience’s carnal desires through a character who can act without any accountability. Only in this instance, Fincher depicts him as paranoid, pretentious, and insufferable. Fassbender’s character sees little recourse, and most of the time, he’s just too good that stakes or obstacles become irrelevant. 

Hence, The Killer is a depiction of a man playing a selfish god, encouraging rampage and inhumanity. He is afforded just the tiniest bit of complexity because his heart is empty most of the time. By sticking to the plan and ignoring the human cost of his actions, he is rewarded generously. The editing imparts an abrupt quality into each act of violence, signifying the meaninglessness of death to our protagonist. (For obvious reasons, this is a telltale sign NOT to root for him).

This film’s integration of technology rivals that of Decision to Leave from last year, showcasing an exceptional level of seamless incorporation in the narrative while also commenting on how that connectedness breeds catastrophe. Amazon deliveries and FedEx packages become new tools in the arsenal of a serial killer in the 21st century. Most of the time, we’re simply observing the killer as he surveys his upcoming target area with his rifle scope. Sometimes he’s just searching things up to buy on Amazon while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ propulsive score is playing, with little else happening. It’s evil lurking within the ordinary and fueled by technological paranoia. The act of killing isn’t the main event; it’s the mundane procedures that come before it.

But this doesn’t mean that the film is a slow-burn all throughout. There’s a fight scene that ramps up the intensity levels from 0 to 100 and I almost thought I was watching an entirely different movie. It was like witnessing Superman in an uncompromising battle against Bane in the middle of a French New Wave film. The soundtrack is also off-kilter, since it revolves around a The Smiths playlist that is as charmingly out of place as you can imagine.

There is minimal substance; it’s all about the style. It’s in the visceral impact of punches, the systematic elimination of loose ends, and the precision with which a hitman erases all traces of a killing. The plot is stripped down to its essentials, resembling a traditional fairy tale where a prince seeks revenge and embarks on a journey beyond his vast kingdom to confront those who have wronged him. However, rather than embracing the stylized approach of Kill Bill or other revenge films, Fincher opts for a heightened sense of realism, reminding us that the same chaotic world inhabited by this truly dreadful character is the one we live in too.

The Killer will be available for streaming on Netflix globally starting November 10. –

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.