David Fincher’s THE KILLER is as methodical as its protagonist, the philosophizing hit man in the midst of pickle that challenges his core nihilistic belief system in which karma doesn’t figure, nor does luck. The irony may be lost on this unnamed protagonist, but not on us as we are treated to a cavalcade of slick assassinations strung together by the barest minimum of a plot. All the better to savor Michael Fassbender at his most ominous, reminding us at varying points in his narration that empathy is a weakness.
Narration is a constant throughout, as the Killer opines about everything from the correct pulse rate necessary to pull the trigger of a long-range rifle, to the exhausting nature of doing nothing, which is what he is doing when we meet him. He’s in Paris, practicing yoga and eating at McDonald’s while waiting for his target to arrive. When he does, things go awry despite the machine-like precision of both plan and armaments. Perhaps it is the leather bustier the target’s companion models that keeps the Killer’s pulse rate a bit too high for a bit too long, perhaps it is just the luck, in this case bad, in which he does not believe. Whatever the cause, he fails to make the kill. And then he fails to do the smart thing. Instead, he heads home to the Dominican Republic to find that vengeance has rained down on his comely companion. Sure, he’s just all but eviscerated someone in Paris with an explosive bullet without a twinge of pity, but seeing this lovely and loyal young (nameless) woman beaten to a pulp sends our protagonist off on a vengeance tour of the players responsible.
Make no mistake, the suspense Fincher and Fassbender evoke is breathtaking. Fassbender has the uncanny ability to be absolutely still and yet overwhelmingly menacing, even when his plans don’t pan out and he registers astonished bemusement. There is also the absolute certainty that his new targets, and anyone else who might be a loose end, will meet their ends at his hands with calm efficiency. Yet, the moment it will happen is never quite certain, tantalizing us with the conundrum of inevitability and surprise. As do the ingenious and complicated methods he uses to achieve his ends. Never mind outwitting the high security of an ultra-luxe fortress of a residence to get at one target, it’s the brash assurance of how he sits down at the table of another (Tilda Swinton in puckishly perverse performance) in an upscale restaurant and fixes his eyes (and gun) on her. The oddity of the equal assurance with which she accepts her fate. Feeling the warmth of the whiskey flight she imbibes as her last meal, she spills her secrets as well as the story of her life to him as if they were old friends. Yet their mostly one-sided exchange is taut, with the way he reaches for a glass of spirits capable of producing a jolt through the viewer that is as jarring as any of the kill shots with which the story is punctuated.
As with all Fincher efforts, this is an exercise in darkness that gives even Caribbean sunshine a mysterious cast. In a particularly violent fight sequence, he keeps the combatants in darkness, etched only by the indirect lighting that creates ambiguous outlines darting across the screen. The darkness, literal and metaphorical is spiked with wit, including the revelation that dressing like a German tourist is especially effective in France for someone in his profession, and the aliases that he uses that will spark recognition from fans of mid-century sit-coms. While the hyperbole is rampant, it is never quite cohesive or pointed enough to qualify as satire. Alas.
THE KILLER plays like a police procedural but with extreme prejudice. The planning is intricate and to be admired for the sheer ingenuity, but, as with the film itself, it is a clinical study that leaves us bereft of that comforting feeling of satisfaction when a protagonist we are following succeeds. Or a director we admire gives us another classic.