Reuniting the filmmaker with his “Seven” screenwriter, Andrew Kevin Walker, adapting a pulpy genre potboiler with icy crisp precision and deploying near total formal command to question the limits of control, David Fincher’s “The Killer” readily and openly welcomes comparisons to much of the director’s prior filmography. But it is genuinely startling that this chilly hit-man drama feels most like a sideways follow-up to “The Social Network” than anything else.
Now, that means a thematic sequel or a bookend – don’t expect Mark, Sean or the Winkelvii to turn up beneath our nameless assassin’s crosshairs (not that he would have the least bit difficulty tracking them down and lighting them up, provided the price was right). Only just as “The Social Network” traced the birth of the modern information age to a dorm room some twenty years ago, here comes “The Killer” to make sense of how things turned out.
This being a David Fincher joint, the answers aren’t pretty, while the images are nearly always sublime. Our nameless Killer (Michael Fassbender) is a gig-economy hired-gun born of the modern age. He’s an atomized digital nomad, conversant in grindset and Gladwellspeak, a dues-paying Amazon Prime subscriber with a preference for WeWork over Airbnb (too many hidden cameras in the latter, you see). He might be a globetrotting nowhere man, but isn’t he a bit like you and me?
We first meet him in Paris as he awaits his next hit. The waiting is always the hardest part, so he spends his waking hours honing his body in an empty rented loft and fills the endless silence with a nonstop voice-over, detailing every step of his finely-tuned routine. Whether he’s talking to us or simply to himself is less important than the gradually creeping dissonance between his unimpeachable air of authority as he inventories all of an assassin’s best practices and his wider outward reality.
Of course, this is a hallmark of the genre. Why else follow a tightly wound control freak if not to see them scramble when things go wrong? And soon enough they do, forcing our Killer to flee the scene of his first botched hit for the warmth of his marital home in the Dominican Republic – only a pair of hired goons have already got there first. Adapted from a French comic series, “The Killer” hits all the requisite beats once our taciturn rogue sets out for vengeance, climbing the ladder of culprits by leaving a fresh body on every wrung.
For all the wit and satirical shadings, “The Killer” gets down to business with ruthless efficiency. Like new installments in an ongoing series, the film is split into chapters, each set in a new locale, each named for a new target, and each playing up a slightly different set of skills.
The film’s pleasures (and surprises) begin with a typically inventive title sequence that impatiently swipes through credits like a Tinder user beset with horrid matches. Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt builds out a gleaming touchscreen color palette, as if everything is filtered through pixelated glass, while Fincher and editor Kirk Baxter never linger on any shot for long. They give the film a clipped and propulsive pace, accenting the inner stillness of a man ever on the move.
If “The Killer” is chilly-to-the-touch and anchored by a quiet and intensely physical performance by Fassbender, the filmmakers nevertheless wring an awful lot of wit from this frigid world. Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay is chalk full of delicious lines delivered by Fassbender in a deadpan voiceover (“I always dress like a German tourist,” he explains. “Nobody wants to interact with one of them”), while a soundtrack uniquely dedicated to The Smiths points towards this prickly killer’s inner emo life.
An ambient and ethereal death-rattle score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross fills in the playlist gaps, while offering an in-joke of its own with one extremely Brian Eno-sounding composition underscoring our hero’s trip through an airport.
A knockdown, drag-out brawl in Florida sees Fassbender’s lithe form dwarfed by a much larger opponent, forcing our Killer (we’ve really got to find him a better name) to bust out some on-the-ground tactile adaptation. Later, a long conversation with a professional colleague (played with aloof impishness by Tilda Swinton, making a meal of her one scene) forces his first bout of introspection.
Don’t expect him to emote those notes of realization. This is a film of hard, polished surfaces, up to and including Fassbender’s stony mien. And don’t anticipate a resolution that hews to the code of thriller 101, especially not in an algorithmic age where nobody, really, is more than in an input. Today it seems like no one’s really in control – save, perhaps, for David Fincher.
“The Killer” opens in select theaters on Oct. 27 and will be released on Netflix on Nov. 10.