The Killer review | Michael Fassbender’s hitman goes on the run

Michael Fassbender in The Killer, directed by David Fincher.
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Michael Fassbender is a hitman on the run in this crime thriller from director David Fincher – here’s our The Killer review.

However you rank David Fincher’s varied filmography, there’s no denying he has a particular affinity for the crime thriller. His dark, noirish work in that genre, starting with Seven and moving through the likes of Fight Club, Zodiac and Gone Girl, explores the darker side of humanity with complex, interesting characters. After moving away from his signature motifs with the deeply personal Mank, Fincher is back to what he does best. This film sees him reunite with Seven writer Andrew Kevin Walker, although it has some marked differences from that 1995 thriller. Unlike the deranged murderers of Seven or Zodiac, the subject of the aptly-named The Killer is a much less emotional iteration of that archetype – a paid assassin.

Michael Fassbender’s plain appearance – a self proclaimed ‘camouflage’ of beige trousers and a Hawaiian shirt modelled after German tourists – hides a surprisingly deep interior. The Killer opens with our murder-man’s internal, philosophical thoughts on his role and his nihilistic outlook on humanity as he patiently awaits the arrival of his next target. Of course, a man like this listens to The Smiths on repeat, and Morrissey’s unmistakable voice permeates a great deal of Fincher’s film.

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As a hitman would, Fassbender spends a lot of time on his own with only his own thoughts for company. The Killer is a character study of one man – a man who thinks himself the archetypal killer. He’s complicated in his wilful detachment from society, and the mantra that he lives by and is constantly repeating to himself. The real question is why he does that – because he lives by it religiously, or because he needs reassurance? A job going horribly wrong would suggest the latter, and as his employer turns against him cracks begin to show in his carefully cultivated icy shell.

Assassin on the run isn’t a new formula. It’s been most recently seen in the likes of the Keanu Reeves-led John Wick movies. The key to giving those types of characters depth is always to find little ways to humanise them. Fassbender’s killer may not be as cold as he thinks he is, but Fincher’s film is a bit of an oddity in the way its main character remains distinctly unlikeable and – outside of his philosophising – not particularly well-defined or interesting. The cracks reveal that he’s not the perfect killer, and perhaps even has some moments of empathy, but never is he quite human enough for us to root for his escape from his shady criminal world (if he even wants to escape). He could also be on a nihilistic mission of self destruction. We’re always unsure of the end goal.

Michael Fassbender in The Killer, directed by David Fincher.

The world Fincher weaves contains a lot of cliches, but all invoked well. The director clearly knows that we’re aware of those tropes, as he wastes no time on providing exposition and worldbuilding in dialogue. We already understand the language of the assassin film: there will be multiple storage units filled with equipment; endless passports with endless names; an infinite supply of burner phones to replace the ones he has to crush under his heel after use. The Killer almost has a sense of humour in these moments. There’s a dry wittiness, and perhaps a sly wink to the audience during many of these ridiculous scenarios.

Those moments are what makes The Killer an enjoyable thriller. Fassbender travels the globe, rooting out those who are hunting him down. The globetrotting aspect of the tale is less glamourised than you’d expect, but the action is spot on. Our killer meticulously plans out his encounters, gathering unconventional materials and disguises to get to the people he needs to. One of those is a lawyer played by Charles Parnell, another a fellow assassin played by Tilda Swinton. Swinton, of course, is incredibly memorable and charismatic despite making only a brief appearance. In fact, the scene Fassbender shares with her is one of the few flickers of real personality his character gets.

This is ultimately what lets down Fincher’s latest. The Killer could be, and should be, an exhilarating thriller with an interesting main character to study. Fassbender’s killer, constantly reinforcing a cold, detached worldview, is not that. The lack of empathy in that central character tends to turn the film into a bit of a nihilistic dirge. What you end up with is the bones of a really great film with a black hole in the middle of it.

The Killer is in select cinemas on 27th October and streaming on Netflix on 10th November.

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