David Fincher’s The Killer was one of the most anticipated releases of 2023. The favourable reviews from film festival screenings only added to the anticipation, and expectations around the film were quite high, Fincher’s popularity as a filmmaker also being a factor here. The Killer, released worldwide on Netflix on November 10, not only lives up to all expectations, but exceeds them. Through this film, Fincher once again claims his position as an auteur. The Killer is a product of its time – a sort of a temporal marker, because this is a film that could not have existed at any other point in time. It employs every established norm of traditional filmmaking as we know it, plays around with it, making way for the use of a new kind of cinematic language.
The Killer is one of the most unique thrillers to come out in recent memory. Turning the tropes of the genre on their heads, the film becomes a meditative journey into the life, and, more strikingly, into the mind of a hitman. The first eighteen minutes of the film employ both visual and verbal storytelling to provide us with two parallel contexts. They are interrelated, yet distinct and distanced. While one helps in setting up the overarching narrative, the other reinforces it and connects it with the protagonist on an intimate level. Michael Fassbender is impeccable in his role as an unfeeling, unmoving sociopath. Superficially, he may appear to be kind of like the protagonists of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) or Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967), but unlike them, he is not totally inscrutable. As we get to hear his inner thoughts, the intimacy between him and the spectator increases. In several ways, this character is a satirical take on the cliched portrayal of assassins in movies. The satire, however, is not obvious, and does not take an in-your-face approach, like Godard, Jodorowsky, or Bunuel, for instance. The character is not really a parody or a caricature, but rather a worldly man – a product of modernity – having multiple conflicts and contradictions. He appears to be calculative and unsentimental, but he constantly needs to remind himself of his own disposition. His actions work as confirmations of his own theories about himself.
In terms of narrative, the film presents a scathing critique of gig economy, high class society, and the all-encompassing effects of modernity and industrialisation. Intertextually, it provides a critique of the generic formal traditions of contemporary cinema. But I will save these discussions for another day, as I want to keep this review completely spoiler-free.
Fincher’s films have always had memorable and influential title sequences. The intro of Seven (1995), for instance, had influenced the entire horror genre since the mid-nineties. But even by Fincher’s standards, The Killer’s title sequence stands out as one of the most unique ones I have ever seen, designed almost like the intro of a TV show; the pacing, music, and visuals instantly set the mood and prepare us for something extraordinarily riveting. The film has a predominantly cool colour tone, which goes well with the narrative.
One thing about the film that really stands out is its music. The Killer marks Fincher’s fifth collaboration with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. In my opinion, the director-composer trio of Fincher-Reznor-Ross will someday be regarded as iconic as the legendary duos like Hitchcock-Hermann or Lynch-Badalamenti. The sound editing of the film is absolutely brilliant. The diegetic music not only makes us share the protagonist’s perspective and experiences, but also makes us a part of his mind. Identification with on-screen characters can take place in several ways, but in this film, music works as the strongest agent of facilitating identification. The sound design of The Killer deserves its own critical analysis, so for the time being, I will only say this: if you like The Smiths, you will like The Killer, and if you do not like The Smiths, The Killer will make you like them.
In my view, we continue to see Fincher at his best in The Killer. It is definitely one of the best films of 2023.
Aditya Modak is a film scholar, author, and filmmaker from Tripura.