The Killer is what thrillers aspire to be, a suspenseful story about a professional death dealer and his world that sheds light on our own mundane lives. We’re made to feel a kinship with an assassin while learning very little about his personality, both comforted and unsettled by the notion that, but for the severity of his actions, the Killer is us. It is spare while emphasizing details, exciting while celebrating the mundane, and human while demanding the eschewing of humanity. It’s outstanding.
An unnamed contract killer (Michael Fassbender) is on assignment in Paris, positioned across the street from a luxury hotel. When the hit goes wrong, the Killer must flee and deal with the consequences of his failure, finding himself on the other side of the contract for the first time.
The opening twenty minutes of The Killer grab you by being decidedly unremarkable. The Killer – as the protagonist is billed in the credits – narrates the truth about his job, and it’s as demystifying as anything in the current trend of deconstruction. The Killer’s average day on assignment is mostly boredom, constant surveillance of the target’s surroundings interspersed with the occasional exercise or trip to McDonald’s. The way he talks, we wonder if the Killer does all those push-ups to keep himself fit or to pass the time. There is nothing remarkable about this man, as he assures us. He is not the world’s deadliest assassin, not Jason Bourne or Carlos the Jackal (Ludlum fans are welcome for the chuckle); he’s a plumber, a gardener, an electrician, a regular guy who picked a trade he felt suited for, and became good at it. This segment is enthralling, making the type of figure the audience has been trained to marvel at seem just like us.
This is also important for the rest of the movie because after screwing up the assassination, the Killer is now in the crosshairs, being hunted by his employer, possibly at the behest of an unsatisfied client. Again, this isn’t a “Those guys don’t know who they’re dealing with” scenario but a man who unexpectedly finds himself in trouble at the office scrambling to make sure it doesn’t ruin his life – in this case, by ending it. As the Killer goes on his journey of self-preservation, he is constantly reminding himself of the things he enumerated in the film’s opening scenes: he must not make anything personal, he must not trust anyone, he must not lose faith in his knowledge of the trade. Being a professional will keep him alive, while embracing emotion will get him killed. And just like pulling weeds or rewiring a phone system, the Killer must systematically identify and eliminate a series of problems, just like on any other workday.
This workmanlike approach to assassination is complemented by the filmmaking, with David Fincher employing no fancy camera tricks or editing flourishes. The Killer is a straightforward visual narrative, each shot telling us what we need to know by focusing on the Killer’s actions. Most of the dialogue is voiceover narration, and it rarely talks about plot points; the Killer tells us what he’s thinking but not what he’s doing. We see what he’s doing, and it isn’t always clear why he’s doing it right away; we’re looking at a guy on the job, much like you’d observe a mechanic, seeing him ply his trade and only realizing why and how he’s doing it as you see the results. This much restraint is indicative of a sure hand, and we know Fincher is that; he wisely gives us only what we need, no muss or fuss required, and The Killer is, as strange as this is to say about something with this much violence and darkness, pleasant to watch.
He’s helped by Michael Fassbender, who is excellent in the lead role. Fassbender is in every scene of the movie, and in almost all of them, he seems bored. That’s because, while these are extraordinary circumstances even for him, it’s mostly just what he does every day. He gathers equipment; he cases locations; he listens to music; he cracks the occasional joke to keep himself amused. He’s plying his trade; that it’s soaked in blood makes no difference to him. And the Killer is aware of this; there are a few moments where he indicates that this is partly a coping mechanism, that he keeps himself at a distance from the fact that he is a murderer by treating it like any other job. On a personal level, we learn very little about him; there are details here and there, but they’re treated like facts more than the depths of his soul. His feelings are unimportant to the job and, thus, unimportant to the film. That Fassbender can still find ways to make this cipher come to life is impressive, and when it’s over, we feel like we know a man we don’t really know at all.
The rest of the cast is good, too, but no one else is in it for more than one scene, at least in a speaking capacity. It almost goes without saying, but Tilda Swinton is a standout, adding more layers to the nature of the Killer’s profession, what motivates men like him beyond what they will admit. Kerry O’Malley is also great in perhaps the movie’s most human performance, a seemingly ordinary woman whose ultimate goals mirror the Killer’s. What’s fascinating to observe is how each of the supporting characters reacts when they meet the Killer, especially in contrast to him. They talk a lot, providing almost all of the movie’s dialogue outside of the Killer’s narration; the Killer, however, says little. Consider why this is as you watch, what it says about him and them, about their situation, about whether it could be different under other circumstances. These are the kinds of questions The Killer invites without outwardly suggesting.
The Killer is, hands-down, one of the best films of the year. It’s a tension-laced thriller, a character study about a largely unknown character, and a tribute to workplace acumen, the ability to do your job well simply because you’re good at it. It’s violent, dark, but also quite funny at times. (Pay attention to the aliases the Killer uses.) It’s a stellar movie, and one you’ll want to revisit.