|Synopsis||A deeply philosophical and cynical hitman goes on a mission to avenge his girlfriend after a failed mission nearly results in her death.|
|Length||1 hour, 58 minutes|
|Release Date||November 10, 2023 (Netflix)|
|Writing||Andrew Kevin Walker|
|Composition||Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross|
|Starring||Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton, Charles Parnell|
The career of David Fincher is one I have always found confusing. He is a particularly popular contemporary filmmaker among my generation of cinephiles, and yet his work has left me persistently cold. This is not to say he is bad. He is one of the most mannered and talented filmmakers alive. He has produced masterpieces like Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network, Gone Girl, and Netflix’s Mindhunter.
At the same time, he also made Alien 3 and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and his most recent cinematic effort Mank was a frustrating ahistorical biopic that attempted to relitigate the disproven theory that Orson Welles stole screenwriting credits from Citizen Kane scribe Herman Mankowitz. His output is very inconsistent, and trying to discern a meaningful consistent worldview behind all of these films is a difficult task. However, a film like The Killer is valuable for this effort.
Violence/Scary Images: Frequent bloody violence and murder throughout the film, with several grizzly and brutal deaths, including shootings, stabbings, and large amounts of blood.
Language/Crude Humor: Some strong language including f*** and s***.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters casually drink alcohol.
Sexual Content: Several characters are depicted having sex in the distance through binoculars.
Spiritual Content: Themes of atheism and moral nihilism.
Other Negative Content: A somewhat triumphalist and brutal depiction of moral nihilism.
Positive Content: Themes of rational thinking, intelligence, and justice.
I have long resigned myself to the theory that filmmaker David Fincher is more of an aesthetic than he is a fully formed cinematic voice. He has said before that one of his abiding views of his audience is, “I think people are perverts.” Realizing that, one begins to see just what drives his movies is a lurid fascination with evil and a preoccupation with materialism and the flesh.
Fincher’s best movies are the ones with scripts that push back against this tendency, such as Zodiac or The Social Network, but the majority of his filmography suffers from it to some degree. His nearly unrivaled skill as a filmmaker allows him to capture scenes of a man’s perversion and brutality with one of the best eyes for measured moody cinema in modern Hollywood. And yet, his movies seem to luridly enjoy the indulgence of sexuality, murder, and human depravity.
The Killer is fascinating from a career perspective mostly insofar as it confirms some of these priors. It follows the story of an unnamed assassin (Michael Fassender), who lives a highly philosophical life and career path. He is introduced at the outset discussing his life as being beyond cosmic consequences, and not fearing the moral implications of his actions that might come from believing in an afterlife. He is a pure rationalist and materialist, and he operates as a figure who understands that having empathy is a form of weakness that can get people killed and interfere with his work.
During one important mission, this process shockingly fails and he ends up assassinating an innocent bystander instead of his target. After returning home and seeing that his girlfriend was nearly assassinated in retaliation, the hitman goes on an extensive worldwide mission to tie up loose ends, hunt down and kill everyone responsible, and close out his life as an assassin so that way he can retire to a comfortable life as a millionaire.
Like a perverse combination of Hitchcock‘s Rear Window and Melville’s Le Samouraï, the movie operates as an equal part revenge thriller and character study, with our protagonist expositing long narrations about his motivations, observations about the world, and cynical life philosophy. Fassbender owns the role of a rational and collected assassin who knows how to think his way through every encounter and leave a situation without loose ends. But the coldness and cruelty his of job necessitate him to justify his own actions. He narrates aphorisms including occultist Aleister Crowley’s infamous “Do as thou wilt” quote and asks himself “What Would John Wilkes Booth Do” once after a murder, summarizing his life philosophy as “I don’t give a f***.”
It quickly becomes clear there is no moral length he isn’t willing to go, including killing innocent people and witnesses to his murders alike. The movie is tacitly a critique of these ideas, insofar as it acknowledges that his hyper-rationalistic approach to life doesn’t totally line up with reality when it causes him to fail his assassination attempt. Other characters frequently appear throughout the film and call him out for his actions, implying he is a hypocrite for taking revenge on his former colleagues for harming an innocent when he is so willing to kill innocents himself.
However, the film mostly leaves these questions and tensions on the cutting room floor. The Killer is ultimately not interested in challenging or denying our protagonist’s life philosophy and seems to operate under the working belief that life can actually be quite easy to move through life without a moral code. Being emotionless, self-serving, and cruel in this world simply works, so long as you’re a millionaire assassin with spare identities and resources planted across the world to facilitate an international killing spree.
There’s an awful lot of thought on display for a movie that could realistically be dismissed as an art house Taken. And once again, Fincher is able to realize this story with meticulous construction that raises the film above the average hitman thriller. It is a very smart, reconstructed film and comes with as much slick action, with some of the best filmmaking on display this year.
I won’t knock the moral nihilism of the film as a flaw, because it is ultimately the point of the story. There are plenty of action movies with very similar premises and executions, where morally uncomplicated characters commit most of the same crimes that Michael Fassbender does with impunity. This is a more holistic style of action film that is honest enough to admit that the kind of person who commits these sorts of crimes has to be a completely detached and amoral person.
And thankfully, the movie certainly delivers on its promises of being a slick, intelligent action film. It might even be one of the best movies I have seen this year. But like its lead character, it is a movie where morals bounce right off of it. It is tremendously honest within the context of its own worldview, insofar as it shows the cruelty and human costs that come from a worldview such as this, taking him to his logical extreme. It is a very romantic and lurid vision of what life looks like when you live beyond good and evil.
+ Beautiful production and filmmaking
+ Great Michael Fassbender performance
+ Fascinating and intelligent story
- Morally nihilistic themes
- Lurid depiction of murder and people
The Bottom Line
The Killer is a slick and intelligent action thriller and a powerful endorsement of moral nihilism and Nietzscheanism that scratches the surface of its ideas before ultimately endorsing them. It is an engaging, beautiful, and unsettling work that can't help but also feel lurid and immoral.