After decades of witnessing cinematic homicide, it’s easy to get desensitized to murder on the big screen – and I’m not just talking about the horror genre. From heroic secret agents who don’t mind getting their hands dirty to hitmen with hearts of gold, we’ve come to accept that main characters will usually come out the other side of a story with a massive body-count. This isn’t exactly a surprise, as violence is one of the oldest and most easily understandable forms of human conflict, and compelling conflict is what fuels good storytelling.
One filmmaker who’s always been fascinated with the dark side of this obsession with violence is David Fincher, a music-video director turned auteur known for his perfectionist streak and stylish filmography. And in 2023, cinephiles were gifted with an unexpected treat when Fincher once again teamed up with Se7en writer Andrew Kevin Walker for their latest murder-focused project, The Killer.
Based on a French comic-book created by Alexis ‘Matz’ Nolent and Luc Jacamon (with the source material being a much more traditional hitman yarn), The Killer was originally set to be produced in 2007 with Fincher being attached to the project from the very beginning. However, a general lack of studio interest in a story that was decidedly less action-packed than your average assassin-gone-rogue flick meant that the director would only manage to secure funding for the production in 2021.
In the finished film, Michael Fassbender plays an unnamed assassin who is forced to go on the run after accidentally botching a job in Paris. He soon finds out that his girlfriend has been attacked at the behest of his employers while he was away and proceeds to meticulously track down the people responsible in a globe-trotting revenge yarn with a down-to-earth twist.
While The Killer was ultimately released as a part of Fincher’s four-year exclusive deal with Netflix, I had the pleasure of checking it out on the big screen as a part of the streaming giant’s attempts at making their films eligible for awards. That’s why I can confidently say that this was one of the better theatrical experiences of 2023 despite technically being a made-for-TV movie.
SO WHY IS IT WORTH WATCHING?
Other than the obvious appeal of Fincher and Walker working together again, The Killer is a surprisingly engaging film in its own right. More of a subtly comedic satire of assassin stories than a bona fide thriller, there’s a reason why some folks are calling this the thinking man’s answer to franchises like John Wick – though I’d argue that the truth is much more complex than that.
There’s also the matter of Fassbender’s captivating performance as a highly confident journeyman-murderer who doesn’t exactly practice what he preaches. Both the actor’s slowly deteriorating demeanor and the incredibly clever script (which often utilizes ironic narration to showcase how misguided our protagonist is) end up characterizing the Killer as more of a flawed human being than the cold-blooded specialist he presents to the world.
In fact, the entire film reminds of that Kris Kristofferson quote from Taxi Driver, where Cybill Shepherd’s character describes Travis Bickle as being “partly truth, partly fiction, a walking contradiction.” This duality even extends to the film’s soundtrack, which balances a minimalist score by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross with a surprisingly mellow selection of The Smiths songs.
Of course, my personal favorite aspect of The Killer is how it invites comparisons between our fastidious main character and the filmmakers telling this story. I get the sense that Fincher and Walker are taking advantage of the source material’s narrative skeleton to comment on what really interests them: the modern-day gig economy and what it means to be a perfectionist honing an inherently chaotic craft.
AND WHAT MAKES IT HORROR ADJACENT?
In the previous Horror Adjacent, we discussed how Nightcrawler’s Lou Bloom felt like a realistic depiction of a psychopath because of his unnatural ambition and general indifference to suffering. Fassbender’s Killer, on the other hand, isn’t actually the source of the horror in his world. Sure, he kills quite a few people, but there’s no personal malice to anything that he does.
The character’s treatment of murder as a banal necessity is merely the result of an environment that encourages distancing yourself from your work, and homicide is simply the job that he seems to excel at. The film even makes a big deal out of just how easy it is to track and kill someone in the modern world, with Fassbender taking advantage of everything from Amazon gadgets to Postmates deliveries to get the job done. It’s all decidedly less glamorous than what you usually see on the big screen, and that’s why I think it hits harder when things get serious.
If you take a look beneath the film’s darkly humorous façade, you might stop to think about how many lives are being destroyed here simply because those in power aren’t aware that their fickle whims fund a system that sees people as less than human – a stark contrast to the unquestioning murders in films like the aforementioned John Wick series.
That’s not to say that The Killer is an experimental art piece, as it still functions perfectly well as an unironic dive into a messy world of morally bankrupt murderers despite subverting many of the genre’s tropes, but I appreciate how Fincher and Walker have taken the effort to make this odd little thriller work on multiple levels – though your mileage may vary depending on how much you enjoy The Smiths.
There’s no understating the importance of a balanced media diet, and since bloody and disgusting entertainment isn’t exclusive to the horror genre, we’ve come up with Horror Adjacent – a recurring column where we recommend non-horror movies that horror fans might enjoy.
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