Most people would agree that David Fincher’s protagonists aren’t exactly cool dudes. There’s the hapless, wonky-smiled Nick in Gone Girl, mega-nerd Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, and selfish divorcé Nicholas in The Game, to name a few. The link? All these characters are under the deluded impression that they are cool, or smart, or have their lives together, only for the plot developments to prove them wrong.
It’s true, then, that the protagonist in The Killer — who presents as an A-grade assassin, but continually makes mistakes in favor of side-quests and futile revenge — doesn’t break that mold. But whereas those prior characters all felt meticulously and carefully coded (this is Fincher, after all) to have goals and principles that made sense in the context of the narrative, Michael Fassbender’s killer is a bag of contradictions who goes through no real moment of reckoning.
Spiritually, The Killer feels most similar to Fight Club in Fincher’s back-catalog, in their analysis of codes of masculinity and the rules of how to live in tandem with those codes. But whereas that 1999 feature presents itself in one way but is stealthily a satire under the surface, The Killer is never quite clear what it wants to be. Its irony proves to be continually evasive. By subverting the typical hitman movie but not quite knowing where next to turn, The Killer finds itself floundering somewhere between drama and comedy, with a confusing character at its core. It’s a curiously sloppy viewpoint for such a fastidious director.
The first subversion arrives in the genre itself. Assassin flicks tend to fall in two camps: comedies like In Bruges, Grosse Pointe Blank, or even Pulp Fiction, or serious dramas in the vein of Jean-Pierre Melville’s stylish and existential crime films The Samourai and The Red Circle. Fincher’s The Killer is, well, neither. While the opening credits promise us something pulpy — the fast-paced B-movie aesthetics hinting at something akin to a Hard Case Crime paperback or at least some shoot-'em-up thrills — the resulting movie doesn’t quite follow through with this fun sense of freewheeling trash. But neither does it manage to forge its own new or interesting path, separate from what has come in this genre before. A film not belonging to a strict genre or tone isn’t always necessarily a bad thing, but the feeling here is that Fincher’s movie struggles to find its modus operandi.
At first, we have the recognizable existential voice-over of a noir-like assassin movie: Fassbender droning on about how he must “keep calm, keep moving” and how “weakness is vulnerability.” Then, in the opening scene, our killer botches a sniper job from his perch in a derelict building in Paris, and we realize that this protagonist is not as sophisticated as the movie — and his own spuriousness — would have us believe. Initially, we think he’s going to be the ultimate brooding killer from the movies, someone with the skill of John Wick and the rigor of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, laying out his rules, his ethics in meticulous detail. So when he immediately fumbles the first job we see him do, it upends these mantras.
What’s more, our assassin insists that he is a blank canvas void of emotional involvement — “fight empathy” and “fight only the battle you’re paid to fight,” goes his mantra — and yet the vast majority of the movie sees him seeking vengeance against the people who beat up his girlfriend. He may tell us he’s dispassionate, and yet he’s doing this all, apparently, out of love. The mistakes only continue from there; at one point he “expertly” nail-guns a man, several times, proudly announcing that the victim has several minutes before internally bleeding to death, giving him enough time to confess information and call for help. When he croaks after thirty seconds, the only reaction our killer has is, essentially, “oopsie.”
Now, these contrasts could work if they were laden with humor. But it isn’t clear, despite some strange costume choices, whether or not we’re meant to find these bungled jobs and contradictions funny, in the same way that we were made to secretly enjoy the misfortunes of Ben Affleck in Gone Girl and Michael Douglas in The Game. That is to say: Fincher seems unsure whether or not he wants us to actually like or root for the killer or not.
He’s kooky, sure: he listens exclusively to The Smiths, does yoga in a Hawaiian shirt and follows the rule “What Would John Wilkes Booth Do?” But all the jokes in Andrew Kevin Walker’s script, itself adapted from Alexis Nolent’s comic book series, feel a bit like they were written by a boomer uncle on Facebook, missing the sense of whip-sharp satire that Fincher displayed in previous films. When the killer references Wordle — is that still a thing? — it clangs like a script trying desperately to be relevant. And, by consequence, we don’t particularly warm to him. Not only does it undermine any claim to ingenious smarts when we see our assassin ordering cheap equipment with next-day delivery on Amazon Prime: if we’re meant to find comedic value in his bungled, short-cut methods, which also make use of Postmates, McDonald’s and WeWork, then this falls flat.
Ultimately, it’s not just in the tone, woolly genres, and faltering humor that gives The Killer an uneven feel. Most unforgiving, and bizarre, is the fact that we never understand why the killer kills. It’s repeatedly noted that he is a multi-millionaire, and so he doesn’t need to work. He has a beautiful, loyal girlfriend and a grand house by the beach. He doesn’t seem to find sadistic pleasure in killing, and the movie seems disinterested in showing us what truly moves him. Part of the reason why we love watching crime films is because we, as viewers, enjoy human fallibility, gullibility and betrayal; it’s what has made so many other David Fincher movies tick, that heart-in-the-mouth feeling of risk and redemption. Fassbender’s killer is so doggedly the same throughout — his actions built in like muscle memory, his motives so opaque — that eventually we just don’t care whether he succeeds or not.
We’re left with a protagonist that undergoes no real psychological change and whose impulses are unclear, a tone that veers unevenly between psychological crime thriller and comedy caper, and a script that fails to cohere. Usually such contradictions between a character’s opinion of himself and the ostensible truth behind his failings would make for an interesting piece of work, but the director handles the story — and Fassbender his performance — with such restraint and tongue-in-cheek remove that it’s tough for the audience to work out whether what is happening is clichéd or clever, satirical or stylish. As such, a nagging feeling prevails that Fincher has scattered ideas across the screen without much verve to commit to any of them.