‘The Killer’ Review: Meticulously Crafted Portrait of a Meticulous Hitman

Cinematic perfectionist David Fincher's movie about a perfectionist assassin is a tone poem on the nature of work in the modern world.

Michael Fassbender in The Killer. Courtesy of Netflix

Do you think about how Red Sox legend Ted Williams managed to maintain his lifetime batting average of .344? Do you find yourself quoting Popeye the Sailor Man? Do you make jokes about the cable show Storage Wars, or occasionally say things like, “Measure twice, cut once,” a la Bob Vila?

THE KILLER ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Andrew Kevin Walker
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton, Charles Parnell, Arliss Howard 
Running time: 118 mins.

Either, (a) you may be becoming your parents, or (b) you are the highly-paid, unnamed professional hitman in The Killer, a new Netflix (NFLX) movie that explores the very nature of fastidious, soulless perfectionism in the face of a paid gig. The film is from David Fincher, who directed Mank and created the short-lived but much discussed series Mindhunter for the streamer; the director has been accused of having a similarly cold and meticulous approach to his own work. 

And we can thank God for that.   

Working from a script—adapted by Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker from a French graphic novel—that is simultaneously over and under written, Fincher’s hypnotizing and narcotic mastery of cinematic tone and texture is the by far the best thing The Killer has going for it.   

Fincher’s latest certainly is not banking on its audience developing the warm and fuzzies for its titular protagonist, played with an emptiness that is as balletic as it is bottomless by Irish actor Michael Fassbender, a two-time Academy Award nominee for Steve McQueen’s 2013 12 Years a Slave and Danny Boyle’s 2015 Steve Jobs. 

Not only does this guy not value human life (the one exception is his Dominican girlfriend, played by Sophie Charlotte) and is way better at yoga than you are, in his head he is constantly prattling off dime store aphorisms alongside random statistics about McDonalds. If he spoke these ponderances aloud rather than just thinking them, his chief way of murdering people would be boring them to death. 

While the Killer’s unrelenting internal monologuing stops short of humanizing him, it does manage to contextualize him in our own workaday lives, where vapid inner voices and overly familiar work playlists—the Killer’s exclusively feature the Smiths—accompany us through the completion of our own mundane tasks. 

The film is a veritable tone poem on the nature of work in the modern world. The Killer is a simultaneously hollow and profound meditation on the numerous ways identity has been swallowed up and voided by the various demands of commerce and brand. (Just like us, the Killer’s work is made more efficient thanks to companies like Starbucks, FedEx, PostMates, and WeWork, which—like his targets—is more useful to him dead than alive.)

Tilda Swinton in The Killer. Courtesy of Netflix

Specifically, Fincher is interested in what happens with process-oriented, supremely dedicated professionals who don’t achieve the objectives set before them; when the Killer fails to fell his assigned target, he becomes one, hunted by a pair of assassins that includes a scotch drinking Tilda Swinton. (Whether or not it was intended, the movie is an apt metaphor for Fincher’s experience directing the doomed 1992 sequel Alien 3.)

The movie springs dramatically to life when Fincher leans furthest into his well-noted tendencies. A dramatically under-lit fight scene in the Florida home of a brute hired to kill the Killer shows Fincher truly in his element, forcing his audience to lean in and decipher.

The sound design in the fight scene—accompanied by a soundtrack from Social Network Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that sometimes sounds like a listing ship—is impeccable, as it is throughout the whole movie. Even the Killer’s beige windbreaker and bucket hat drag, a camouflage he lifted from a German tourist, is irreproachable.

Does all of this flawless craft work make up for the film’s low emotional stakes and lack of exciting reveal or third act turn? Yes, thanks to Fassbender’s mesmerizing grace under fire and the almost transcendent way in which Fincher’s cinematic form matches his subject.

It’s as if the director is telling us that while processes of our every day lives may feel like a trap, an absolute and unwavering dedication to them may be what ultimately sets us free.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘The Killer’ Review: Meticulously Crafted Portrait of a Meticulous Hitman