In The Killer (Netflix), David Fincher subverts the revenge neo-noir genre with the ironic, irresistible character study of a tedious, sociopathic hit man.
“It’s amazing how physically exhausting it can be to do nothing,” says the protagonist of David Fincher‘s The Killer (Netflix) at the beginning of the film, in an internal monologue that will accompany us through the entire movie. “If you’re unable to endure boredom, this work is not for you.” The “work” in question is that of a hit man, as our titular, nameless Killer (Michael Fassbender) has been hired to get rid of a man, and is currently stationed in the building across the street, with his rifle at hand, looking directly into his target’s window. And as well as describing the Killer’s line of work, the idea of “enduring boredom” also applies to our experience of watching the movie — but that is entirely the point of the film, a neo-noir revenge story that you’ll start to adore the moment you’ll stop taking its protagonist seriously.
Fincher’s Killer is a man of strong moral principles who is very aware of his skillset. “I am not exceptional,” he tells us, “I am just apart.” He follows a strict routine that involves getting very little sleep, setting alarms, exercising, and leaving no trace of himself. And he has a mantra that helps him accomplish his jobs. “Stick to the plan. Anticipate, don’t improvise. Fight only the battle you’re paid to fight. Trust no one”, his internal monologue recites. “This is what it takes, if you want to succeed.” But it doesn’t take us long to realize that our Killer is neither as successful nor as emotionally detached as he thinks he is.
The Killer‘s protagonist is the very definition of an unreliable narrator, and he’s also not a particularly likable one. Being in his head is exhausting, as his grandiose, long-winded stream of consciousness never ends, bombarding us with the same set of principles over and over again. This constant repetition gives us zero insight on who he is, establishing him instead as a narcissistic, pedantic character right off the bat. Ironically, the very first thing we see him do is fail, as he eventually takes his shot and misses the target. And when his girlfriend is attacked, back in the Dominican Republic, as retribution for his failure, he sets off to fight a “battle” driven exclusively by his thirst for revenge.
And so, we follow him on an international mission to track down the people who hurt his girlfriend — a journey that Fincher and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (who adapted the film from Alexis “Matz” Nolent’s graphic novel series) make sure is as unrewarding as possible. As our Killer assumes disguises and meets various forgettable strangers, we see him constantly break his moral code and make decisions that lead him nowhere. This makes watching the film a pretty frustrating experience, since we aren’t given any of the intrigue, fast-paced sequences, and final reveals that usually characterize the subgenre. There are no heroes, villains, clever plans, and even real motivations here: we don’t even know anything about our lead. But once you understand that this is precisely the point and you begin to get the film, you’ll find The Killer not only highly compelling, but also absolutely hilarious.
The key to understanding The Killer is not taking its titular hit man seriously, approaching the movie like a character study instead. Michael Fassbender excels as a protagonist who’s almost expressionless, in a way that’s neither intriguing nor enigmatic, but rather quite pathetic. Not long into the film, you’ll start to notice the contradictions between what he tells us about himself and the man he actually proves to be, and this is a great source of irony.
The way the film was shot amplifies this, as several scenes are purposefully uneventful and definitely longer than they needed to be, but there are also fast-paced moments that take us by surprise, revealing our protagonist’s contradictions in fun, entertaining ways. The Killer also provides plenty of tension, enhanced by the everpresent, anxiety-inducing score (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) and sound design (Ren Klyce). At the same time, we are treated to lighthearted moments that relieve us of that tension at the exact right time, such as our hit man’s exquisitely emo go-to songs for when he needs to concentrate.
The acting is fantastic throughout, and, besides Fassbender, the ever-excellent Tilda Swinton is a standout as a master manipulator who absolutely leaves a mark, even if she only has one scene in the movie. Kerry O’Malley (Grey’s Anatomy) is also fantastic as a resourceful woman the Killer meets in New Orleans, whose determination to survive provides plenty of tension.
It took me a little while to really understand The Killer. When I first left the screening, I was disappointed by the frustrating experience I had just had, as the movie was absolutely not the exciting, thrilling ride I expected it to be. But the more I thought of it, the more I realized that David Fincher’s latest is actually the character study of a narcissistic, extremely uninteresting man, whose journey is meant to be unrewarding, as that is the point of the film. If hit men are usually considered slick and “cool,” Fincher’s protagonist is ordinary and unpleasant. If what draws us to revenge movies is our desire to see our wronged hero succeed, The Killer gives us a hero that not only we can’t wait to be rid of, but who also wasn’t exactly wronged to begin with.
The Killer will not be for everyone, as our expectations define our enjoyment of a movie, and not everyone will be able to understand how to approach this revenge story. But if you’re able to not take it seriously, you’ll start to really have fun with it, and you’ll suddenly find it irresistible.
The Killer premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival on September 3, 2023. The film will be released in select theaters on October 27 and on Netflix on November 10.