In principle, using the rainy-day, kitchen-sink post-rock of Manchester band The Smiths so prominently in a film like The Killer seems incredibly perverse, given that it’s an exotic, globe-trotting thriller about an American assassin. But in reality, it’s actually very sound choice indeed: legend has it that the band’s singer, Morrissey, had two reasons for naming his band so, the first being that “Smith” is one of the most common and thus unremarkable surnames in the world. The second, and much more subversive theory, suggests that it’s also a reference to David and Maureen Smith, brother-in-law and sister of ’60s serial killer Myra Hindley, the snappily dressed couple whose testimony blew open the Moors Murderers case and whose beatnik likenesses adorn the cover of Sonic Youth’s 1990 album “Goo”.
There’s a slight chance David Fincher and his creative team may not know these things, but, either way, his latest feature is a similarly spiked cocktail that mixes the wholly mundane with the chillingly macabre, a terrifically lean and violent action movie that might be his most purely satisfying yet. That’s a bold claim, for sure, but Fincher does seem to have a tendency to get bored with his own technical brilliance as a filmmaker, leading to strangely untidied loose ends and films that often slightly outstay their welcome. The Killer, though, fully embraces the will to perfection, casting a spell so bewitching that even its hilarious, jet-black streak of absurdist humor doesn’t shatter the mood.
Though it is scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker, Fincher’s partner-in-crime on 1995’s Seven and has more than a passing resemblance to 1999’s Fight Club — a veritable succès-de-scandale that flipped the wigs of the blue-rinse set at that year’s Venice Film Festival — The Killer might even be Fincher’s most autobiographical movie to date. Like Fincher, the nameless central character is a purist, as hitmen usually are in these kinds of movies. The Killer, however, though it delivers on every promise of the kinds of juicy deaths that are teased in the short but gloriously lurid title sequence, is a film about the quotidian in-between times. The opening kill takes 25 minutes alone, and though it would work without dialogue entirely, Fincher adds voiceover from star Michael Fassbender that emphasizes the day-to-day drudgery of, literally, trying to get a shot.
The assassin’s voiceover offers a stark contrast to the images on screen. Waiting for his prey, he gets bored and idly notes how easy it would be to kill concierge, or any number of passersby. He has no conscience, no beliefs (“Luck isn’t real, nor is karma, or justice”), but he does have a philosophy: “I serve no god or country. I. Don’t. Give. A. F*ck.” This rationale will soon be tested, however. After killing a prostitute by mistake, he returns to his hideout in the Dominican Republic to find that the only person in his life (his housekeeper, or is it his lover?) has been hospitalized by two thugs — one who looks like “a Q Tip”, a subtle clue to a famous guest star — that have been sent to find him and erase the only witness. Predictably, Like Lee Marvin in Point Blank, the assassin takes umbrage at this, sending him on a journey of seething, and superbly cinematic, retribution.
As we all know, Michael Fassbender is not, and no, Lee Marvin, and the fact that he isn’t soon starts to make a lot of sense. The Killer is very much about the plusses and minuses of being a hired assassin in the modern age, with surveillance cameras everywhere, Amazon pickup-points, WeWork offices, Postmates deliveries and Airbnbs (“Those super-hosts like their nannycams”). A key part of the job, therefore, is total anonymity, which involves the assassin dressing like “a German tourist”, eating at McDonald’s and getting through an insane amount of burner phones in any given week.
Jean-Pierre Melville created the template for this kind of movie with Alain Delon in 1967’s Le Samourai, and Jim Jarmusch refined it with Forest Whitaker by channeling the spirit of Seijun Suzuki for 1999’s Ghost Dog. Fincher, though, gives it a distinctly American flavor, sending the assassin to New Orleans, Florida and New York and giving him a string of hilarious pseudonyms that went way over the head of audiences in Venice. The name “Reuben Kincaid” (the manager of TV’s Partridge Family) was taken at face value, as were “Archibald Bunker” (All in the Family), “Felix Unger” and “Oscar Madison” (AKA The Odd Couple). As the assassin travels from place to place, his sole accompaniment is the music of The Smiths, which Fincher chops up — as his wont — in ways that undercut the traditional needle-drop. Which means that you’ll need to be quick to catch the likes of “I Know It’s Over” or “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, songs that blew up the tradition of verse-chorus-middle-eight just as The Killer destroys genre conventions, most notably with a spectacular punch-up that takes place in frustrating semi-darkness.
Fincher obviously has his fans, and this will certainly satisfy them. But The Killer also scratches a more mainstream itch; since the Bourne films dried up and Daniel Craig retired, there’s a mad need right now for this kind of thing. Although a franchise, to quote a disgraced British daytime TV show host recently, would be “unwise but not illegal”, The Killer provides a lurid kind of escapism we haven’t really seen since the ’60s, a suave, cold-blooded but very, very funny kind of savoir-faire that finds the frustrated assassin reflecting on his predicament and wondering, “When was my last nice, quiet drowning?”
Title: The Killer
Festival: Venice (Competition)
Director: David Fincher
Screenwriter: Andrew Kevin Walker
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Charles Parnell, Kerry O’Malley
Running time: 1hr 58 min