Something’s off right away in David Fincher’s The Killer — from the opening credits, even, which look and feel uncomfortably like a television show. The Netflix logo fades, and off it goes, a catchy instrumental theme, names and images appearing and disappearing in a rapid-fire manner (if the sequence runs a full minute, I’d be shocked). Maybe Fincher is just surrendering, keenly aware that far more people will watch this film on a television (and likely with only a portion of their focus) than will ever see it during the streamer’s perfunctory theatrical run. That said, those who pay it their full attention will likely be underwhelmed. It’s not a bad movie, by most metrics. There’s just not much there.
You can see what drew him to the project. It is, first of all, a screenplay by Seven scribe Andrew Kevin Walker (adapting the graphic novel by Alexis Nolent and Luc Jacamon). More than that, it’s an exercise (and experiment) in style, and specifically in stylized minimalism. Michael Fassbender plays the title character — who is never referred to by his Christian name — a wealthy and experienced contract killer who (stop me if you’ve heard this one) does his work efficiently and professionally, and adheres to a strict code of conduct.
The early sections are mostly spent with him alone, waiting out a target on a job, to the sounds of The Smiths in his earbuds and his own searching, borderline existentialist voice-over. “I’m not exceptional. I’m just… a part,” he tells us; later, as the days tick away, he notes, “It’s the idle hours that most often lead a man to ruin.” The viewer who listens closely might also suspect something personal in this material for the notoriously precise filmmaker, especially when the protagonist explains, “My process is purely logistical — narrowly focused by design.”
The target eventually arrives, but he fumbles the job, and as a consequence, he returns to his home in the Dominican Republic to find that his live-in girlfriend (Sophie Charlotte) has been viciously attacked as a punishment for his failure. “Nothing like this will ever be allowed to happen again,” he tells her brother, and he sets off to even the score.
Fincher, a master stylist from his commercial and music video days forward, knows exactly what the aesthetics of this thing should be. Every shot is impeccably composed; every transition is tight and clever. The sound design is ingenious (when he’s listening to his music to focus, we hear the slight bleed from his headphones when we’re looking at him, but the sound shifts to full blast in his point-of-view shots). The camera moves with precision and purpose, just like its protagonist (the cinematographer is Erik Messerschmidt, with whom Fincher collaborated on Manhunter and, less successfully, Mank). And the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is hard and cold and doomy — even for them.
He puts together a couple of commendable set pieces, including a fierce, brutal, hand-to-hand sequence that breaks the monotony nicely — it’s Fassbender’s best bone-cruncher since Haywire, and the ferocity of the filmmaking matches the staging. We get a similar jolt when playful, colorful supporting characters finally turn up in the third act; witness the marvelous nonverbal things Tilda Swinton does when she comes face to face with our protagonist, or the regular-guy quality of Arliss Howard’s big bad. By that point in the picture, we need some flavor, as Fassbender’s handsome blankness can only take you so far.
The problem, which all of Fincher’s razzle-dazzle cannot overcome, is that Walker’s script is just so empty. The dialogue is trite (his repeated mantras sound like cliches the first time we hear them), the flashes of wit are rare (his aliases are all sitcom characters — Felix Unger, Archibald Bunker, Sam Malone — a gag that realllly wears out its welcome by the eighth or ninth invocation) and there’s little in the way of dramatic tension; the narrative plays out exactly as expected from the time the killer issues his proclamation. Logical leaps abound (when he spots the bootprints and cigarette butts, ask yourself who would be that sloppy). Even the central premise doesn’t hold water; he’s supposed to be a ruthlessly effective and efficient killer, but the inciting event is a job that goes sideways, and a later target lights out before he intended. Is it possible that this guy’s just not very good at his job?
Fincher’s Netflix period has proven wildly unsatisfying, at least for this admirer. Mindhunter was a fine procedural (albeit yet another example of the streamer shutting down a good show under dodgy pretenses), but Mank and The Killer are, without hesitation, his least successful pictures to date. His motivations for doing them are not hard to guess at; Mank was a passion project, a niche screenplay by his late father that he’d been trying to make for years, while The Killer allowed the kind of full-on stylistic experimentation he hasn’t done since Panic Room. (The globe-trotting screenplay also allowed the director to do some traveling on Netflix’s dime, so good for him.) One cannot fault a filmmaker who does not want to surrender to the boogeyman of IP for going into business with a deep-pocketed streamer that lets him make whatever he wants. But I cannot help but look forward to when he returns to crafting movies worth seeing.
“The Killer” is in theaters now, and streams Friday on Netflix.