Subtlety in cinema has been on the chopping block for a while now. A deft edit, small asides from characters, the shot of hands that tells the audience more than half a page of dialogue ever could. These things are currently endangered by overly chatty characters, info-dump exposition, and tedious worldbuilding palaver. Not so in Netflix Studios’ The Killer.
During Matty’s first watch, I was rapt with attention. A clean, well-organized frame showed just enough to let me know where we were, who we were with, and what was happening. Not so much that surprise was off the table, but there was sufficient visual information to keep me invested. And, when a trio of sonic wunderkinds —musicians Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and sound designer Ren Klyce— added their surgical strokes to the moving canvas, it became something very special, that rare Latin bird, sui generis.
David Fincher, mainstream film’s most paradoxically digestible perfectionist, helms The Killer, a pulpy crime-thriller with dark comedic sequins winking from a luxuriously depraved quilt. This movie, like most of Fincher’s work, looks fantastic, is cut in ways so arch you laugh when you don’t gasp, and makes strong men doing awful things, grimed with sweat and blood and gun grease, into an endless parade of Daddies™ even the straight guys just squirmed from reading.
Michael Fassbender is our titular protagonist, nameless and all the better for it. Because who he really is, depending on what you bring to your viewing, both is and isn’t the point. And he has many aliases, which appear on a string of IDs and passports we can safely assume are as disposable as the hilarious amount of clothing he bundles and stuffs into waste bins (there is a hysterical YouTube supercut of this that’s two whole minutes long). Said fake names are some of the film’s best low-key laughs; I refuse to spoil them for you.
I wrote a bite-sized mini review of this film over on Fossilbook, which is where Goat gave me a loving shove to flesh this out. In it, I called the film “a wire-taut, propulsive pulp delicacy I thoroughly enjoyed. Not many surprises, we’ve been here before, predating crime and vengeance films in dozens of Chandler, Thompson and Vachss novels.”
I stand by that, having watched it a couple more times since the post. Do not mistake my name-checking for derision; I am complimenting the pedigree from which this film emerges. It’s adapted from a French comic book series, for the screen, by Andy Walker, the former Tower Records clerk who first teamed up with Fincher when he wrote a fun little flick called Se7en back in the nineties.
The plot is a surprisingly linear affair, with a warmly persistent voiceover courtesy of Fassbender’s own inner monologue, On its own, this isolated audio will very likely become a future ASMR classic, but in context, it’s arresting and any relaxation it creates just sets the viewer up to get sideswiped. The Killer’s running commentary slowly, queasily diverges from what his actions depict, and this is where much of the fun and fan debate takes place. Is he a man with a shifting code, a sardonic cynic, a relic turned loose cannon…? I think he is all three, and more on top.
BTS materials, found largely on YouTube, because Netflix makes the odd choice to curate commentaries there rather than on alternative audio tracks, sheds light on what Fincher intended here. If you, like me, prefer to come to your own conclusions before hearing the auteur’s vision, please do so. Knowing what was intended afterward made for fun arguments in my fizzing brain.
“Forbid empathy” he tells himself, and then grants one doomed character’s last wish on behalf of their surviving family members.
“Don’t improvise, stick to the plan,” he hums all around us, while being forced to do the former as the latter dissipates.
These contradictions of structure make for a house that shimmies like a brick-and-mortar belly dancer. The blood-soaked joy comes from trying to rationalize Fassbender’s widening spirals of intention. Two final things of note, before my warm milk and cyanide chaser.
Tilda Swinton, statuesque, mesmeric, makes a show-stopping third act appearance, and it’s clear that she and Fassbender are having a fucking blast doing the Adversaries Restaurant Meetcute that Michael Mann practically branded into our brains with 1995’s Heat.
However, my favorite part, by a country mile, is the hand-to-hand fight between the Killer and “The Brute.” When you’re hunting down a guy that left your better half in the ICU with a string of stitches that would scare a baseball, you’d better be ready for war… and it is a war we get, kids. Clocking in at three merciless minutes, shot alternately wide and close, panning and zooming, pushing in and pulling back, our men in a Florida marsh mansion fight to the death.
Punching, kicking, pummeling, lashing, stabbing, shooting and choking never felt so good. Klyce’s scalpel-precise sound choices dance with Reznor’s and Ross’s twitchy grinding timbres. Please, for the love of whoever I last slept with —because I’m sure they were pretty cool or whatever— watch this movie with a good sound system or on noise-canceling headphones. All that nerdy tech shit pays off for three stomach-churning minutes.
I’m not going to give this a starred or a numbered rating. I’m simply going to encourage you, if you enjoy some of what I’ve laid out, to give The Killer a go. It’s more naughty fun than any statute of limitations forbids me from typing, and when it ends you get to leave the room without a safe word.