' ' Cinema Romantico: The Killer

Monday, December 04, 2023

The Killer

“The Killer” opens with the nameless assassin (Michael Fassbender) of its title holed up in some Parisian apartment while waiting for the arrival of wealthy so & so he’s been contracted to terminate in the luxurious penthouse directly across from him, all while talking to himself as much as us in a detached voiceover that is part running diary and part motivational mantra. If it’s a familiar set-up, director David Fincher deploys that familiarity to great effect. If most movies have conditioned us to expect this prologue to last maybe five minutes before the assassin’s target shows, this one just keeps going. The nameless Killer goes outside and then back inside; he eats fast food; he does yoga; he sleeps; he keeps talking, always in the same low monotone. We are lulled into a rhythm. Like the monitor the assassin wears on his wrist seeking to keep his heartrate low, our heartrate gets lower and lower, too, so that when the target finally shows, we’re virtually as relaxed and low-key confident as the assassin, which is why when the hit goes haywire, it’s not shocking to our intellect, necessarily, but still mentally and physically unexpected. I laughed out loud! It’s a prolonged punchline! It’s a helluva curtain raiser, leading to a similarly detailed interlude of the assassin’s escape, eventually to a safe house in the Dominican Republic where he finds his girlfriend Magdala (Sophie Charlotte) having been tortured to within an inch of her life, the people for whom he’s failed to complete his contract coming to collect.

Even then, however, when settling into a rhythm of The Killer undertaking a traditional pageant of vengeance, you can sense the mischievous glimmer in Fincher’s eye, the way he narratively makes the movie go one way even as he emotionally, or maybe just sub textually, pulls you in another direction. Like many movies in this minimalist vein, “The Killer” owes a debt to the essential French New Wave text “Le Samouraï” (1967) in which director Jean-Pierre Melville equates the austerity of a hitman’s (Alain Delon) code with that of so many feudal Japan warriors. In the existential cool of Delon and Melville’s deadpan air, that code is rendered as honorable as it is absurd. In “The Killer,” it is just absurd. Rather than Delon’s neutral colors, The Killer dresses like a dweeb in a bucket hat, floral prints, and sandals. Rather than “Le Samouraï’s” virtual wordlessness, The Killer prattles on and on in those voiceovers, coming across like John Doe’s diary entries in “Se7en” melded with a Tony Robbins seminar and basketball coaching clinics (“adapt, don’t improvise”). You can practically hear Fincher snickering just off screen. The script for “Se7en” was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, as is this script (based on a graphic novel by Alexis “Matz” Nolent), which is fascinating, suggesting how one twist of the tonal dial makes all the difference. In “Se7en,” John Doe’s observations are creepily revealing; “The Killer’s” observations are dryly empty.

This is telling. Like Magdala isn’t really a character, nay, a person, just sort of theoretical, The Killer hardly exists either, cribbing his various aliases from pop culture. The one scene designed on the surface to inject a sense of humanity is so overtly philosophical in its intention that it ends up playing more like that scene in “The Matrix” when Joe Pantoliano eats the steak that isn’t real, like this is all merely projection. It causes a weird detachment, not just in the less action-oriented scenes but the action ones too, like infiltrating a Florida man’s semi-fortress, as rote as it is riveting. That, though, seems to be the intention. It is no coincidence that The Killer uses an abandoned WeWork space for the Parisian opening, shops at Amazon, uses a FedEx Delivery driver as a kind of cover when breaking into a building, etc. Indeed, The Killer is less a samurai, a la Alan Delon, than an assassin as a gig worker, as if we are all on our own bosses yet at the mercy of the omnipresent corporate structures that allow it, giving The Killer more than a whiff of “Fight Club’s” Tyler Durden years after the battle. Durden was a cult of personality, but The Killer is without a persona at all, subsumed, IKEA structure manifested as person.

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