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What happens when a hit man misses his mark? 'The Killer' is about to find out

Michael Fassbender plays an assassin on the run in <em>The Killer.</em>
Michael Fassbender plays an assassin on the run in The Killer.

David Fincher has had murder on his mind for so long, in thrillers like Se7en, Zodiac and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, that you almost have to laugh at his new movie's no-nonsense title: The Killer. It's adapted from a French graphic novel series by Alexis "Matz" Nolent and Luc Jacamon, about a hit man played here with cool precision by Michael Fassbender.

We never learn the killer's name; he has countless aliases and fake passports, which he uses to travel the globe, killing rich, powerful people at the behest of other rich, powerful people. He isn't troubled by questions of motive, let alone morality. For him, killing is just a job, one that demands the utmost commitment, patience and discipline, as he tells us in the acidly funny voiceover narration that runs through the movie.

The movie begins in Paris, where the killer has been hiding out for days in an empty WeWork space, waiting for his target, who lives in a swanky apartment across the street. We follow every detail of the killer's routine: the carefully scheduled naps, the fast-food runs, the yoga stretches he does to stay limber. He listens to The Smiths, his favorite band. And he uses a watch to monitor his pulse; his heart rate needs to be below 60 beats per minute when the time finally comes to pull the trigger.

But in a rare moment of bad luck for him, this particular job goes horribly awry, and he misses his mark. Amid the bloody fallout, he somehow manages a clean getaway: There's a beautifully edited sequence of Fassbender speeding through Paris at night on his motorcycle, discarding pieces of his rifle in different trash bins while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' haunting electronic score surges in the background.

But the consequences of his mistake are immediate and devastating. Arriving back at his hideaway in the Dominican Republic, he finds that assailants have broken in and attacked his girlfriend, who barely managed to survive and is now hospitalized. The killer's employers, trying to mollify their disgruntled client, have clearly turned the tables on him — and he decides to repay them in kind. Killing, something that's so impersonal for him, has suddenly become deeply personal.

The plot, as laid out in Andrew Kevin Walker's perfectly paced script, is fairly standard revenge-thriller business. The killer's mission takes him to cities including New Orleans, New York and Chicago, where he breaks into his employers' office, gathers information and leaves a trail of bodies in his wake.

But the beauty of Fincher's filmmaking, as always, is in the ultra-meticulous details; this is a process movie in which the mundane becomes mesmerizing. The violence is startling but relatively brief. We spend a lot more time watching the killer make supply runs to hardware stores, Amazon delivery lockers and his own personal storage units around the country.

As in Fincher's 1999 classic, Fight Club, there's a whiff of late-capitalist satire here: After all, what is the killer but just another participant in the gig economy, only with above-average pay and especially lethal occupational hazards?

As he goes about his mission, the killer keeps repeating the same mantras: "Stick to the plan. Forbid empathy." The viewer, however, may feel sorry for some of the unlucky few who find themselves in the killer's sights — OK, maybe not the Brute, a hulking adversary who gets taken down in one bone-crunching, furniture-smashing action setpiece. But you can't help but feel for a rival assassin, played to perfection by Tilda Swinton in one exquisitely written and directed scene.

Fassbender's performance is also a thing of chilled beauty; like Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 hit-man classic, Le Samouraï, he gives a cipher-like man of action an undeniable glimmer of soul. Even as he dispenses his glib aphorisms and spills his trade secrets in his running commentary, Fassbender's killer retains a crucial air of mystery. No matter how carefully he plots his every move, he still proves capable of surprising himself and us.

I'm not suggesting his story cries out for a sequel, but by the time this very dark comedy reaches its strangely sunny ending, you're curious to see what job this killer — and Fincher himself — might take on next.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.