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Tilda Swinton, with swooped-over white hair and wearing a white collared shirt, sits in the dark and looks intently into the camera in David Fincher’s The Killer Image: Netflix

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Netflix’s David Fincher thriller The Killer never pays off its brilliant setup

Michael Fassbender stars in a return to Fincher’s grime-and-crime era

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This review of David Fincher’s The Killer was originally published in conjunction with the film’s premiere at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival. It has been updated and republished for the film’s Netflix debut.

David Fincher’s latest movie — a Netflix adaptation of the French graphic novel series The Killer — is nihilistic in the most recursive, reductive sense. Its search for meaning hits dead end after dead end. While that’s part of its artistic credo, it’s incredibly frustrating to watch it meander around numerous bends, finding only the tiniest handful of exciting or bleakly funny scenes. What’s especially strange about The Killer is that Fincher achieves almost everything he sets out to, but he sets that bar dispiritingly low.

The only truly electric thing about The Killer is the live-wire opening credits. The sequence is a throwback to the kind of grimy, impressionistic montages of textures and details that Fincher cemented in the popular consciousness with Seven, which eventually became shorthand for “this is a procedural.” From there, the movie quickly transitions into a methodical, observational first act, following an anonymous assassin (Michael Fassbender) on a job in Paris.

There, he perches in an abandoned WeWork office, across the street from a lavish penthouse. With his target nowhere to be seen, he finds ways to pass the time, as he recounts his meticulous methodology in ritualistic voice-over, not unlike Harmony Korine assassin movie Aggro Dr1ft, sans the hallucinogens. Sitting alone, he tells the audience how he severs himself from empathy and keenly keeps his eyes on the prize.

But his assertions have plenty of holes. He’s constantly distracted while surveilling his subject’s home — his gaze falls on other windows and people on the street — and his idea of nutritious protein is a breakfast McGriddle. He wears cheap, loose-fitting jackets and shirts with tropical prints; he rattles on about blending in, but his appearance is completely conspicuous. (It’d be hard for witnesses to forget his floppy bucket hat.) Also, his version of a Bond-esque spy gadget is a collapsible coffee cup.

At first, The Killer seems like a pitch-perfect satire of assassin dramas, especially when it reveals that Fassbender’s character kind of sucks at his job. At least, this particular mission goes awry in a manner that deflates every aspect of the MO he’s walked the audience through. That’s a fantastic place to start, but all the tension and sense of wry observation quickly evaporate. When the hunter becomes the hunted in a global cat-and-mouse chase, the film drips with the kind of intense paranoia Fincher lathered across the screen in his thriller The Game, but none of the setup of the first half-hour pays off.

Fincher and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker disguise (and only hint at) what the Killer’s career has looked like up to this point, and they keep us at a distance from his perspective. That comes to mind whenever Fincher cuts back and forth between “objective” shots of the character and minor snippets of his point of view, usually through a sniper scope while he’s listening to The Smiths. In the brief moments when we see the world through his eyes, we also hear it through his ears, as he’s engulfed in music — which quickly disappears once the edit cuts back to its neutral vantage. While this sudden change in volume draws attention to the movie’s artifice, forcing us to recalibrate our own viewpoint, it’s a flourish that’s distracting at best.

And that isn’t the only downside to keeping us at arm’s length from the Killer. Despite the near-constant voice-over, some of the scenes are disconnected in their narrative framing. The Killer’s objective when he lands in a new city is completely obscured, so we feel less like accomplices to his journey (or even persecutors chasing him), and more like hostages peeking out at him through rips in a blindfold. At various points, it’s hard to tell whether he’s intruding on someone’s home to murder them, or simply holing up at a safe house. In theory, this ought to play into the aforementioned paranoia (long faded by the second act). But Fincher’s calculated aesthetic approach, and his carefully considered framing and movement, end up distinctly noncommittal.

On the plus side, this is the rare movie where Fincher employs handheld shots galore, which add exciting unpredictability to the occasional chase. But for the most part, his gloomy, gaslamp urban tableaus are just atmosphere without function. Beyond a point, the only filmic element telling any actual story in The Killer is Fassbender’s narration. The Killer is, perhaps by design, a boring character, but instead of mining him for further contradictions — say, between his thoughts and his actions — Fincher seems content to simply let the camera run without giving it a sense of presence or perspective.

In the most David Fincher-y image possible, the unnamed Killer of The Killer stands in the window of a grimy, dimly lit room, looking out, and he’s played by Michael Fassbender, but you can barely see him because everything’s so dark and grainy Image: Netflix

There are moments of absurd humor to be found, like whenever the Killer makes a mistake (often) and whenever he finds himself outsmarted (constantly). Fassbender’s casting is note-perfect, as a man whose self-professed slick professionalism constantly falls by the wayside along with his bravado. Anytime Fassbender displays even mild certainty, it’s broken up by vacant or questioning stares. He wears the movie’s moral void on his face in every scene. Since he has the lion’s share of screen time — other than those brief POV shots, he’s in practically every frame — he’s tasked with commanding the entire film. And even his shaky American accent (which he pitches up in uncanny fashion, recalling his role as the title character in Danny Boyle’s 2015 movie Steve Jobs) adds to his sense of self-constructed artifice. In terms of its central performance, The Killer is unimpeachable.

Unfortunately, Fassbender’s character is also a man in stasis. His ethical inflexibility aligns with his story’s depiction of cycles of pointless violence. But the Killer seems to have little opinion or outlook on anyone or anything beyond the immediate circumstances of a given scene. And while this makes for the occasionally focused subplot — like when he breaks into a Floridian man cave in an act of retribution, catalyzing an amusing, flailing fistfight that would feel at home in HBO’s Barry — his lack of ethos makes too much of The Killer into a dull experience. There’s little dramatic challenge, and few payoffs for the pitch-black comedy it seems to set up.

In theory, The Killer could be seen as a film about the ruthlessness of the gig economy, disguised as a crime thriller. It sends the Killer through a Russian nesting doll of missions until there’s little delineation between his personal life and his profession. But Fincher and Walker have little to say about anything they present on screen, or the fleeting thematic subtext they introduce. The film is airtight in its construction, but slight in its artistic objectives. Beyond Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ nerve-wracking score, there really isn’t that much to it.

The Killer is streaming on Netflix now.