The Killer (2023)
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker
Starring Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton
Release Date November 10th, 2023
Published November 11th, 2023
Is David Fincher's The Killer a comedy? I'm genuinely asking this question because I think Fincher is messing with us. The Killer is oddly sly, talky, and carries an almost entirely ironic needle drop soundtrack of songs by The Smiths, that most melancholy and death-obsessed, pop group. A killer who relaxes by listening to The Smiths is an irresistible comic idea. I asked my music obsessed sister about making a movie about a contract killer with a soundtrack full of Smiths songs and she responded, not knowing I was talking about the new David Fincher movie, 'That's a bit too spirited and haunted of an idea." The Smiths are 'a bit too acutely perfect for it.'
Putting aside for a moment that The Smiths lead singer, Morrissey, is now a toxic waste dump of a human being, the soundtrack does feel like a bit of a joke. That's especially true when you combine the soundtrack with Michael Fassbender's relaxed performance that slowly starts to unravel as his nameless killer is forced to go on the run and hunt down killers who are now hunting him after he botches a job in Paris in the opening 'chapter' of the movie. The needle drops are mostly early in The Killer but they have a perversely comic edge to them.
As Fassbender delivers an inner monologue to us in the audience about his work as a killer for hire, Fincher punctuates the scene by raising and dropping the volume on the Smiths' song "How Soon is Now." Pointedly and purposefully, after Fassbender's killer says "I serve no God or country, I fly no flag," the volume rises on How Soon is Now as Morrissey sings "I go about things the wrong way." It's as if the music Fincher chose for this scene is intended as a critique of his main character. This motif repeats moments later when Fassbender intones his personal thesis statement "I...Don't...Give...A...F***" and the soundtrack rises again and Morrissey sings, as if in conversation with the movie, "I am human and I need to be loved."
Do I think this is Fincher saying that a hardened, sociopathic murderer just needs to be loved? No, I think, in the world and mind of David Fincher, this is humor. This is Fincher mocking the idea that someone this cold blooded, this seemingly without remorse, could be saved by a good hug and a cuddle. That's what I thought when the scene was playing out anyway. By the end of the movie, Fincher seems to have come around on the idea of the transformative power of love, at least a little, at least as a way of ending the movie.
There are other elements of dark and twisted humor in The Killer. After his failed shooting at the start of the movie, as Fassbender is riding a scooter to get away from the scene of the crime, Fassbender says the line 'WWJWBD, What Would John Wilkes Booth Do?' Is the line funny? Kind of, at the odd angle that David Fincher comes to it, it's kind of funny and Fassbender's relaxed, calm delivery of the line almost feels like he's acknowledging the dark comedy of such a statement. I am only amused by the line as I sit here, while watching it, it rang a bell in my mind that it was an odd statement but I quickly moved on from it. That same bell rang again when Fassbender says "I should scrub my eyes and shave my tongue," as cleans up in a gas station after his failed assassination.
The film even has a running gag, of sorts. Fassbender travels the globe and uses different identities. In a move that strikes an odd chord, The Killer, as he's credited, uses the names of well known television characters from the 1970s as his aliases. He's Felix Under, He's Archie Bunker, he's Oscar Madison, he's Lou Grant. We see him use these aliases again and again and the fact that no one makes note of the fact that these were once popular television characters is a strange bit of humor as Fassbender seems to be visually waiting for someone to notice, prepared to dismiss his naming convention as a coincidence to anyone who takes note. Is this funny? It's weird, and since we're talking about Fincher, it could be an example of what he thinks is funny, even if no one else is laughing.
All of this said, the remainder of The Killer is a mostly meditative study of a careful man, carefully covering his tracks, taking a little revenge, and mostly tolerating his own existence until we reach an unexpectedly simple and pat ending. Is the ending supposed to be a final ironic touch? Throughout the film, Fassbender puts forward a philosophy painting himself as a loner who cares for no one, has no sympathy and has ruled out empathy. Much of the film is about him being forced to break his hard and fast rules and the final moments reveal a seeming hypocrisy at the heart of The Killer as a character and the meta joke of it all is only sort of hitting me now as I consider it.
I don't genuinely know how I feel about The Killer. It lacks the ambition and filmmaking style that Fincher is known for. It feels like a deconstructionist bit of dark of humor at times and at times it feels like standard thriller that slowly reveals the main character as his worldview is picked apart by the circumstances of his choices and his very rare failure as a contract killer. Fassbender bloviates throughout the killer spouting his dark philosophy on human beings and then ends the movie with an ironic wink at the audience that echoes some of the nihilistic, empty, philosophizing of Fincher's id character, Tyler Durden of Fight Club.
But is The Killer Fincher's take on comedy? The answer is a murky maybe. The film is oddly amusing if you are on its wavelength. The film is otherwise something of an elevated genre movie, Fincher giving his take on the trope of hired killers in movies, hard men, sociopaths who get paid immense amounts of money to kill. We've seen characters like this in other movies but we've never seen David Fincher's take on this trope. It's certainly not a bad movie, Fincher is too skilled and too brilliant to make a genuinely bad movie. But, that said, The Killer is not among Fincher's best films. It's moody and unique for a genre movie, but compared to the larger ideas at play in other Fincher projects, The Killer is lacking in ambition and feels like more of an experiment in style than a fully complicated movie.
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