Thursday 2 November 2023

The limits of control: "The Killer"

The Killer finds David Fincher on much the same give-'em-what-they-want form he's been on since The Social Network missed out on the Best Picture Oscar just over a decade ago. (One shining exception: the Netflix series Mindhunter, where he appeared genuinely engaged with the business of converting grisly true-crime business into something approaching art. But even that was taken away from him.) I wish I could say Fincher had alighted upon more robust and energising material here than was the case with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's shopworn tropes and Gone Girl's ghoulish trolling; early on, at least, there are flickers that suggest Alexis "Matz" Nolent's graphic novel, as adapted by Se7en scribe Andrew Kevin Walker, might offer some fresh line of sight on the hitman drama. No quick hits, for one. It takes a full twenty minutes for the first trigger to be decisively pulled, time during which we observe a weary Michael Fassbender, a hollow man sitting in a hollowed-out WeWork hub in central Paris, unscrolling both his tools and (in voiceover) his philosophy while waiting for his target to show himself in the lavish hotel suite across the way. That we are in the city of Sartre and Jean-Pierre Melville is seemingly no accident: from the off, The Killer means to be existential rather than especially exciting. Eventually Fincher rouses himself and starts to give non-polonecks what they might well want from a film of this framing - Michael Fassbender haring around the globe, doing people in - but he makes us wait for it, and in that delay between set-up and action, a semi-intriguing possibility emerges: that The Killer might just serve as wryly knowing self-portraiture.

For as the hitman sits and waits for his shot, so too does the filmmaker; both men jet from city to city, half-empty bolthole to half-empty bolthole, completing the work-for-hire that enables them to maintain dream homes they barely set foot in. Fassbender's killer - we never catch his real name; he barely seems to merit one - is, like many directors, a dyed-in-the-wool dork, his head fully loaded with stats and self-imposed philosophies ("anticipate, don't improvise", "fight only the battle you're paid to fight"). He is also, for all that this plot gives him loved ones to protect, out there on his own, which is the predicament Fincher faces as a neo-classical filmmaker navigating a post-studio landscape. Every now and again, under pressure, he makes a mistake and the assignment gets away from him; this leaves him even more isolated, disowned by the people who commissioned him to carry out the job in the first place, and obliged to scurry even higher up the chain of command to broker the deals that keep the whole sorry cycle going. If Fincher succeeds in placing us squarely inside the assassin's mindset - by showing us the kind of things he notices, dwells on, fears - it's surely because these are the details he himself has had cause to obsess about over the past decade. 1967's Point Blank, the hitman movie against which most contemporary American directors measure themselves, came at us in stark, hallucinatory fragments; The Killer, which sporadically suggests a Godardian remake of Point Blank, reassembles those fragments into a streaming-smoothed mirror. After an hour of Fincher and Fassbender peering relentlessly through their viewfinders at one another, a phrase zipped into my head like a sniper's bullet: style without generosity equals narcissism. That was all I took away from a largely enervating experience.

Make no mistake, The Killer is a clinically professional job of work. Cut to the quick, as has been the Fincher way post-Social Network, it opens with credits that reload like a rifle and demonstrates a way of shuttling us past the more incredible aspects of Nolent's original plotting. I suspect we would only fully buy the killer's recycling of vintage TV character names as false identities - hastening his untroubled passage through airport check-in desks - if a) we saw the killer watching reruns in his ample downtime or b) he demonstrated even the thinnest sliver of humour, but then relaxation and levity are not qualities that come easily to Fassbender on screen. Instead, the star turns up and goes through his usual agonised motions, committing entirely to playing a nerd who takes bleach to any traces of personality and really seems just to want to get back to his bubble of murdering folk while listening to The Smiths. He gets comprehensively outmanoeuvred by Tilda Swinton, weaponising a cameo as one of the killer's swisher targets to confess she would have eaten more Haagen-Dazs in her time if she knew she was going to die this soon - and when a performer as preternaturally pale as Swinton is the one dash of colour in your movie, you might know you're in trouble. Even in its stronger moments - a darkened ding-dong in a Florida flophouse, with Fassbender rolling his eyes after he reaches into a kitchen drawer for a weapon and pulls out a cheese grater - The Killer never feels like much more than a Luc Besson actioner made on a streamer budget by someone who knows what they're doing. It goes in one ear and zips out the other, leaving Fincher to get on with the next project and Netflix subscribers free to click onto something else. Seeing this director churn out fodder is somehow even more dispiriting than sitting through a non-event like The Gray Man (remember that?), because one imagines the Russos honestly thought that was a wild ride befitting their talents. Yet whether bruised by the demands of the box office or exhausted by the vagaries of the studio system, Fincher looks to have resigned himself to fighting the battles he's been paid to fight, using the considerable tools in his arsenal merely to keep a hand in a rapidly changing, unpredictable game. Fine for him, good for his dream home - but his best movies, like American movies in general, used to give us so much more.

The Killer is now playing in selected cinemas; it becomes available to stream via Netflix on November 10.

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