The Killer

December 06, 2023 [movies] #cinema

The Killer

The first time I saw The Killer, I was not particularly impressed. It’s the story of a hitman on the run after a botched job. This is a theme that has been explored widely but I first fell in love with it with Jean Pierre Meivelle’s Le Samourai (1967), back when I saw it at 19 or 20. I have believed thus far that no else has done it better, not John Woo, not Luc Bresson, not even Jim Jarmusch in Ghost Dog. Only the Korean action drama, A Bittersweet Life, comes close.

The Killer has since that first viewing drawn me back again and again. I have never seen a movie twice in such quick succession before. Layers that escaped me became apparent, such as the fact that our hitman could be an unreliable narrator. David Fincher is some ways an old school filmmaker. There are no jump cuts, the camera is still, the action when it happens is centered. There are no obvious musical prompts shoving the audience ahead of the narration. He is patient, letting the scenes build. The effect is that we are completely with our protagonist all the way through, in the moment: watching a few gym bros and their menacing pitbull in Tampa Bay, buying a garbage can and nail gun in New Orleans, staking out a restaurant outside of New York. In here is an immediacy that I have rarely felt in other movies. The hitman, played by Michael Fassbender, has a code. He anticipates, but doesn’t improvise. He doesn’t believe in justice or karma. He has trained himself, he lets us know, to not give a damn about his targets. He repeats these statements, as if they were a mantra, and we see him just as persistently violate them. I see in it parallels to Fincher's own style of filmmaking, with his exacting pre-production and numerous takes, all that careful planning at the mercy of magic that an actor dispenses on the day of the shoot. If one could extend the analogy, there are parallels to very many things in life. You can prepare all you want, but there are few things really under one’s control.

Fassbender, who was a very a convincing android in Prometheus, is mesmerizing. With him we are nervous, with him we are sore, with him we squirm. We lose sight of him just once, when Tilda Swinton, in a brief role as another contractor for hire, steals the scene. David Fincher, I must accept, is a master. Even with a narrator, he is content to show rather than tell. He resists the urge to offer a sermon and to moralize, a dispiriting affectation all too common in the recent “eat the rich” movies and tv shows. Though stylistically and thematically different, Scorsese is similar is this respect. While maintaining a moral distance from his protagonists, he unapologetically shows criminals having a good time while the fun lasts. Consider his Wolf of Wall Street or Goodfellas.

This is that rare movie I will certainly revisit again. Here we spend the first 20 minutes with our anonymous hitman in an abandoned WeWork high-rise, sleeping on a sheetrock, and still be pretty darn entertained. That deserves a first place on any list of hitman movies worth recalling.

Back to top