David Fincher is no stranger to voiceovers.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” aside, voiceover in a Fincher film is historically used to obscure some truth that will become clear later on. In “Gone Girl,” Amy’s recounting of her diaries conceals her real motive. In “Fight Club,” the narrator’s thoughts help obfuscate the truth of Tyler Durden’s identity. In “The Killer,” however, the titular character’s narration doesn’t really hide anything. Rather the opposite.
Fincher’s new film opens with an extended sequence where a professional assassin (Michael Fassbender) dryly explains the ins and outs of waiting for a mark to appear. He’s shacked up in a seemingly abandoned WeWork building across the street from a swanky Parisian hotel, waiting for his would-be victim to arrive. His thoughts oscillate from laser focused (“Vigilance is essential.”) to tangentially related to the task at hand (musings about why people dislike German tourists, or how similar he is to Popeye the Sailor Man). He does yoga. He listens exclusively to The Smiths. He has a one track mind and full confidence in the power of his conviction. He is also kind of full of sh-t.
“The Killer” is about a guy who is meticulous, who envisions himself to be pragmatic, and who is exceptional at his job. In that way, this unnamed assassin is a lot like Fincher himself, another legendary perfectionist in his professional field. Much like directing, killing is not a particularly glamorous job. The killer/director must be exacting, in control, and focused on getting the best results possible. “It all comes down to preparation, attention to detail,” the Killer says. “Redundancies, redundancies, redundancies.” The only way to get what you want is to rely on yourself.
Unfortunately, if you’re only relying on yourself, you are the only one who can pick up the pieces when things go haywire. When Fassbender’s assassin misses his mark within the first 20 or so minutes of the film, his carefully constructed world of ambivalence starts to crumble around him. Written by collaborator Andrew Kevin Walker, “The Killer” is a sort of metatextual trance, often very funny, and one of Fincher’s most personal films yet. What happens when the roteness of perfectionism, the tedium of routine, is disrupted? At the heart of “The Killer,” failure is more terrifying and humanizing than anything else.
After that scintillating opening sequence, the plot of “The Killer” descends into something a bit more familiar – because of the Killer’s inability to hit his mark, his boss (Charles Parnell) sends two other assassins after him to clean up the mess. When they show up at his beachside mansion in the Dominican Republic, he’s not home yet. His girlfriend (Sophie Charlotte) takes the brunt of their attack.
She survives, and when the Killer finds out what happened, he embarks on a revenge plot, which feels more routine and stereotypical than what we saw at the film’s beginning. But here, the predictability of the plot is really besides the point. The tension is driven by the Killer’s continued insistence that he is void of empathy or feeling. To be in this business (assassinations or perhaps, the film industry), you can’t let your feelings get hurt too easily. Particularly if the hurt is a direct result of your actions. Revenge is a plotline that often runs white hot, but Fassbender is as stoic as they come, and the film’s atmosphere lacks rage, replacing it with a mix of determination and disappointment. The Killer’s motivations have less to do with the fact that a loved one has been harmed, and more to do with what led to that harm in the first place – his failure to do his job correctly.
Fassbender rarely speaks in the film, his voiceover taking the reins as he continuously lies to the audience and himself. His emotion comes out in his kills. “It’s not my place to formulate any opinion” he says about his victims in that opening sequence. But his choices to exact pain or not, to make the death quick or not, hold an opinion as much as any words could. The one time he almost – almost – betrays any emotion on his face is during a meeting with a fellow assassin played by Tilda Swinton. She’s the opposite of the Killer – charming, friendly, someone who makes attempts to relate to others on a personal level. Fassbender’s expression while regarding her is halfway to judgmental. She represents a different way of working. A way that the Killer has never allowed himself to have – or at least, so he tells himself. He is on a quest for vengeance, after all.
“The Killer” both seems like a culmination of Fincher’s work as well as a sort of rejection of the reaction to films such as “Fight Club.” You’d be hard pressed to misread “The Killer” – Fassbender’s monotonous onslaught of narration won’t let you. His continued insistence that weakness cannot be tolerated as he hunts down the people who hurt someone he loves, his commitment to sticking to a plan as the plan blows up in his face time and time again, seems to be Fincher poking a bit of fun at his own public persona, as well as that certain subset of fans who observe the “cool” in his movies and often miss the point.
Because the Killer is the antithesis of cool. He is just a guy trying to do his job. The best days are the days that are boring, because that means things went according to plan.