The Pitch: An unnamed assassin (Michael Fassbender) repeats his mantras on a multi-day stakeout in Paris. Stick to your plan. He does yoga, zones out to The Smiths on his trusty earbuds, gets some much-needed protein from McDonald’s down the street. Trust no one. He’s set to assassinate a client’s business rival from across the street, waiting for his time to strike. Forbid empathy. He misses. Empathy is weakness.
Fleeing the scene, he returns to his Dominican Republic hideout, only to see his girlfriend (Sophie Charlotte) at death’s door, at the behest of unidentified cleaners sent to track him down for his mess. Anticipate, don’t improvise. He could flee, with enough money and resources to disappear completely. Never yield an advantage. But something inside him sends him in a more vengeful direction. Fight only the battle you’re paid to fight. He’s no longer sticking to the plan.
The Headmaster Ritual: Considering that David Fincher is one of Hollywood’s great perfectionists and planners, it’s no surprise he’d gravitate to a lean, stylish thriller story like The Killer, his newest addition to the Netflix algorithm. Adapting the French graphic novel by Matz and Luc Jacamon (with a script by Se7en collaborator Andrew Kevin Walker), Fincher spends a cool two hours soaking in the cold, controlled fastidiousness of his central character, an assassin movie more focused on procedure than plot.
From its extended prologue in Paris to his globe-hopping search for the people he wants to hunt down, The Killer is remarkably well-paced — each act feeling like a self-contained issue of the graphic novel on which it’s based. While Fassbender is supported by a capable cast (Arliss Howard, Charles Parnell, etc.), it’s the former’s show through and through. Fincher keeps his eye turned towards him at all times, refusing to look away even when the man commits horrible acts in the name of closing off all loose ends. (His targets aren’t always bad people, and Fincher relishes in toying with the idea that his Killer might have a soft side… until brutally reminding us otherwise.)
This Charming Man: But what’s most fascinating about Fincher’s, and Fassbender’s, work here is the way the pair mine unexpected emotional intensity from such an unfeeling, anonymous figure. The Killer is a man who prides himself on his professionalism: His aforementioned code is a list of rules to live by, a credo intended to maximize productivity and minimize risk. But something inside him flinches even before his work hits a little too close to home; suddenly, all his little justifications and tics clash with the pure id of revenge, even as Fassbender never moves his lantern-jawed visage beyond its professional mask.
Instead, what cracks we do get come courtesy of Walker’s voiceover, which is our major window into The Killer’s psyche. Fassbender brings no small amount of his previous psychopaths to the title role; there’s a little David in there, some Magneto from the X-Men pictures, maybe even a little of his role in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. He carries himself with a statuesque physicality, signposting every move with a single glance or shift in body language.