The Killer (David Fincher, US)

By Adam Piron

Clocking in at a clean 47 seconds, the title sequence in The Killer sets something like a metronome for David Fincher’s latest effort. Guided by the steady pulse of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score, a montage unfolds on details of the eponymous, nameless assassin (Michael Fassbender) using his hands to execute his trade. Each shot, none more than a second and framed exclusively from first-person viewpoints and close-ups, keeps to the consistency of the music’s rhythm as an off-beat swells in dissonance to match his increasingly brutal methods. 

An integral component of Fincher’s filmography has been title sequences, with that for Se7en (1995) often being cited as his most iconic. Where that opener frames the details of a serial killer’s meticulous documentation of his handiwork as a form of warped creative expression, that of the new film finds its murderer dealing out death strictly as labour. The quickest and most disarming of Fincher’s works, The Killer seeds a precise economy of form that the remainder of the film proceeds to orbit.

Hidden within the interior construction site of a Parisian WeWork office, Fassbender’s Killer scopes out the darkened apartment of his next mark. “It’s amazing how physically exhausting it can be to do nothing,” he muses. Days have passed with only his routine of yoga, eating McDonald’s, and listening to a playlist of tracks by The Smiths to help keep his focus. Over a flow of internal monologue, the assassin expounds on his personal philosophy about his craft—notably, declaring himself above that majority of humanity that is exploited by the few, thus boastfully placing himself in the latter echelon. Equipped with the minimal narrative penned by Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, Fincher leans into the sparseness of this man’s cocooned state, employing a sharp definition of perspective that is most notable in the use of Fassbender’s voiceover, a call with the Killer’s handler Hodges (Charles Parnell), and music that is heard only from the lead character’s earpiece.

Eventually, with a dominatrix and a security detail in tow, the long-awaited target arrives in his monitored apartment just as sleep deprivation begins to set in for Fincher’s executioner. For all of his introspective ruminations on self-discipline, the Killer’s illusion of control shatters along with the window he shoots his bullet through, as he snipes the target’s sex-worker companion in error. He flees the scene, and proceeds to navigate a circuit of airports, flights, and airline workers—initiating a movement through an interconnected network of workplaces, paid services, and exchanges that allows The Killer to transcend the tired framework of the hitman-revenge scenario, and become a reflection on how labour creates a web that binds together the entirety of the humanity that the Killer fancies himself an exception to.   

Landing home in the Dominican Republic under a cloud of paranoia, the Killer finds his house vandalized and his girlfriend (Sophie Charlotte) in hospital after surviving a brutal attack at the hands of unknown contractors. He later breaks into a taxi company’s office and identifies a young man named Leo (Gabriel Polanco) as the driver of the hired hands, and proceeds to exterminate him the next day after extracting the intel he needs. The next stop in this business trip from hell takes the Killer to his self-admitted origin point: New Orleans, where Fincher’s Man with No Name slips into the law offices of his former professor turned handler Hodges, and restrains both him and his secretary, Dolores (Kerry O’Malley). It’s revealed in voiceover that Hodges encouraged his one-time student to ditch the study of law, and learn instead how to skirt it. Like Dante descending into a new ring of Hell, Fincher adjusts his film’s focus to the next level of work’s hierarchy: a managerial class that manipulates an industrial system to its advantage. 

With the aid of a nail gun (a tool of manual labour), the Killer proceeds to bite the hand that feeds him as he punctures Hodges’ laptop and, then, chest, in an unsuccessful bid to make him spill the whereabouts of the would-be assassins and the client who paid them. Hodges bleeds out, and Dolores pleads to be spared a fate that would deny her children her life insurance (a last request that is, itself, a last gasp to milk the system in her favour). The Killer’s “no empathy” mantra is put to the test as he witnesses (and facilitates) Dolores’ long, pathetic march to her demise: after she retrieves the information in her home, the Killer stages her murder as an accident, honouring his part of the exchange with his ostensible co-worker. There’s a melancholy to the affair that the Killer quickly brushes off, but a poignancy nonetheless remains, in that Dolores pays the ultimate price for her employer’s mismanagement.

As the Killer moves to cross the next names off his hit list, Fincher pushes his enforcer beyond the labyrinth of the market and into the realm of his true peers in his trade. The gears are put on him as goes up against his fellow assassins—a Floridian musclehead labeled The Brute (Sala Baker), and then a more seasoned contractor known as The Expert (Tilda Swinton), who deals in mind games. These two represent the polar extremes of the Killer’s own proficiencies, each requiring him to problem-solve in real time; an operator who has found an (illusory) perfection in the rote motions of his bloody trade, the Killer here has the pressure really put on him for the first time, forced to get his hands dirty and use his brawn and brain to snuff out his girlfriend’s assailants. 

These executions push the Killer to realize that his earlier-professed autonomy was a self-delusion, and recognize his true place as just another replaceable cog in a larger, murderous machine. It’s what makes his final confrontation with Claybourne (Arliss Howard), a billionaire venture capitalist and the original client of the botched Paris job, all the more unexpected. When the Killer finds out that his final hit has no real knowledge of what’s unfolded—that the retaliatory attack on his girlfriend was a mere insurance line item that Claybourne barely registered—the assassin concludes that it’s not worth taking him out. Insulated in his high-rise penthouse, surrounded by screens tracking market performance, Claybourne is the living image of corporate figureheads’ ignorance of the work that they profit from in the world below. The film concludes with the Killer back at home on the beach with his girlfriend on the mend next to him, resigned to accept his place among the many.

Many have speculated that The Killer is some form of Fincher apologia for his oeuvre, which, like the dominatrix who stumbled into Fassbender’s crosshairs, barely misses the mark. Known for his controlled style, the filmmaker has repeatedly pushed against the auteur label so often assigned to him, instead crediting his work as a product of collaborative design with other artisans and, at times, of interference from clueless higher-ups. With its unsentimental reflections on enveloping web of labour and the progressively dissolving ego of its self-impressed protagonist, The Killer is perhaps less a confession than a meta-statement on Fincher’s own artistic labour, and how it can be weighed within a system that renders art as product. Regardless, to echo Fassbender’s voiceover as the Killer flees the scene of his hit gone awry: “This is new.”

AdamPiron@cinema-scope.com Piron Adam