Principal Cast : Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton, Charles Parnell, Kerry O’Malley, Sophie Charlotte, Gabriel Polanco, Arliss Howard, Emiliano Pernia, Sala Baker, Endre Hules, Monique Ganderton, Daran Norris, Jack Kesy.
Synopsis: After a fateful near-miss, an assassin battles his employers, and himself, on an international manhunt he insists isn’t personal.
Not to be confused with John Woo’s electrifying assassin slaughterfest from the late 1990’s, David Fincher’s methodical take on the John Wick kill-absolutely-everyone subgenre is an alternately electrifying case study in loneliness and isolation, but also an at-times dull travelogue as Michael Fassbender sets out on his path to revenge. Crisply photographed and delivering moments of propulsive violence amid protracted stretches of waiting, sitting, and filtering through airports, car hire desks and hotel lobbies, The Killer isn’t exactly one of the director’s best films but it’s still worth a watch; at the end of it, the continued poetic lyricism of Fassbender’s character’s narration becomes just so much white noise, a formless character study offset with moments of brutality contrasted against the beauty of the film’s global surroundings.
Fassbender plays a nameless contract killer, who assumes a variety of fake pseudonyms as he traverses the globe assassinating people. After he accidentally botches a killing in Paris, the Killer returns to his home in the Dominican Republic to find his girlfriend, Magdala (Sophie Charlotte) has been brutalised by unknown assailants as revenge for his failure. Seeking his own revenge, the Killer gathers information about the assailants from a local taxi driver, Leo (Gabriel Polanco), and then tracks the information trail to his handler (Charles Parnell) and secretary Dolores (Kerry O’Malley). He learns the true identity of his lover’s assailants and their addresses, whereupon he seeks them out and brutally sets about to kill them as payback.
I have a suspicion a lot of casual viewers will be disappointed with Fincher’s film. Not that it’s bad, because The Killer is really rather good. I think the expectation of a film with that title, and marketed as Fassbender going on a violent spree of death and destruction, is leading people into a false idea of what the film actually is, because it really isn’t a balls-out action film a la John Wick or Atomic Blonde; The Killer is a slow paced meditation of isolation and solitude, and for a lot of people I don’t think the film will work. Personally, I found it an enthralling character study, even if the character – like many Fassbender plays, to be honest – is entirely unlikeable and a homicidal maniac, which makes our admiration of him as the protagonist and his sudden moral urge to seek revenge, an awkward realisation by the audience. Yes, when the guy who recounts the methodical and pathologically emotionless manner in which he has trained himself to off people in a variety of ways starts to become a beacon of hope for the viewer, you know Fincher has grabbed you.
As an avowed fan of Fincher’s work since Alien 3 (yes, I have a soft spot for that film, although Fight Club, Panic Room and Se7en remain atop the list of his work I love) I came into The Killer with a muted appreciation for its potential. Having skimmed a compendium reprint of the original French comic book back in the day, for which this film draws its inspiration, the property wasn’t one that ever grabbed me. Admittedly my encounter with the Casterman publications were limited, but the style and narrative never hooked me. Fincher’s film is obviously inspired by pulp comic genre, with specific shots and editing missing only the WHAMMO and KAPOW from the panelling it’s so attuned to the printed page. Fassbender, for his status as an incredible actor capable of sublime performances, acquits himself well, both in his stony, rigid silence and almost wordless menace, although his tete-a-tete with Sala Baker (Lord of the Rings) as one of the assassins is a brutal fight for the ages and as violent as anything Fincher has depicted on screen before. I would argue the film doesn’t really stretch Fassbender as an actor, in that his character emotes only a little – and even then with a controlled rage – but in terms of capturing the insular nature of his role the dude is exemplary.
Supporting Fassbender in his turn as a silent assassin, is a small but effective supporting cast assembled to pad out this seedy world of murder. Tilda Swinton, an actress who can tell an entire story with a single facial expression, is tremendous as The Expert, one of the people the Killer has in his sights. Swinton manages to accomplish in a single scene what some actors can only dream of doing in an entire film – make a compelling, convincing character we wish we could see more of. It’s a wonderful turn from her. Charles Purnell is great as the Killer’s handler, while poor Kerry O’Malley, as the put-upon secretary who is absolutely terrified, is terrific. And let’s also reiterate the ferocity of Sala Baker’s bulldog-loving brute, another of the Killer’s targets although one of whom he is far outmatched by in pure physical strength. It was also fun seeing Arliss Howard play a decadent yet asinine businessman late in the film, a real pleasure.
Closer to Gone Girl and Zodiac than one might otherwise be comfortable with, Fincher’s direction of The Killer is one of remarkable restraint. Violent only when required, the film’s quiet nature and unassuming tone plays with Hitchcockian voyeurism superbly well, giving our lead character – a total psychopath, mind you – a real Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window vibe. It’s hard to work out what the point of all this is, and exactly how our main character grows from the start to the finish of Fincher’s fabulous murderous opus is still open to debate. Regardless of expectation, however, The Killer is a solid little genre piece, a lesser Fincher but still one worth investigating.