The word “killer” in corporate slang refers to a person who is highly efficient, ambitious and successful in their field. All the adjectives used fit the protagonist of Fincher’s new film. An athletic man with a focused expression receives orders from unknown crypto-billionaires who need someone to do their dirty work for them. He flies from state to state for them. They spend their days and nights in hotels, airports and other similarly impersonal “non-places”. He doesn’t have a home to furnish with Ikea furniture.
He doesn’t even have a name, a past or his own style of dressing – he copied the current one from German tourists. The character of Michael Fassbender, who is perfect for the role of the tight-lipped, never-blinking self-made man, consists of a series of mechanically repeated actions and reactions and slurring of quotes. It doesn’t matter if it’s from bestsellers for entrepreneurs or Pepka the sailor. You don’t know the difference: “I am what I am.” “Fight only when you’re paid.” “Stick to the plan.” His identity has dissolved into the work he does. He is a killer. But not only in a figurative sense.
A useful idiot
The man’s portfolio is introduced during the title sequence referencing Fincher’s cult crime thriller Seven. In brief close-ups, we see different methods of murder. Firearms, lethal injections, a poisonous snake, a hairdryer in the bathtub… As the killer reveals in an off-screen commentary that makes his sociopathic thinking accessible to us throughout the film, he prefers contact work where he can use his creativity. But the market has changed. The age of manual men and women of action is slowly fading away.
The American filmmaker’s new film is closest to Fight Club in its cynicism and anti-capitalist sentiment. But there was still a possibility of defiance against the system in him.
Those who want to stay in the game must first of all be tech-savvy, regularly check their heart rate on a smart watch and know how to use applications from Google, Amazon and other giant technology companies that rob us of our privacy with the promise of greater freedom. Your own senses and intellect are not enough. Fassbender’s killer is a confirmation of the thesis that technology transforms our character. He has no understanding for people, he treats them with the coolness of a computer. “Compassion is weakness,” is part of the mantra he repeats obsessively.
The first of six stylistically slightly different chapters takes place in Paris, mostly in an abandoned WeWork office, an ideal space to carry out a murder. (At least since the owners of Airbnb apartments began to use security cameras, as the hero dryly states, oriented in the environment of modern gentrified big cities.) From here, the killer observes people walking on the street from a “god’s” perspective and patiently waits for an opportune moment to shoot the victim, who is housed in the house opposite. He probably doesn’t even know who it is. Why too. He’s just doing the job.
He is spatially and mentally distant from other mortals. He thinks of them as insects, a means to his own ends. He doesn’t communicate with anyone when he doesn’t have to. As a loner who follows his own set of rules and doesn’t expect recognition from others, he personifies the “sigma male” archetype, especially popular among men who don’t understand that American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman isn’t meant to be a positive role model. Fincher’s killer is convinced of his exceptionality and autonomy. But by acting based on efficiency, control, and planning, he actually fulfills the demands of the system—just like all those ants he observes with a MacMuffin or a Starbucks coffee in hand. He’s not a rebel, but a useful idiot.
A killing machine
The dramaturgy of the film is based on the contradiction between reality and the self-presentation of the hero, who, like big companies, tries to sell us his flawless self. It is based on the French comic book series of the same name by Alexis Nolent and Luca Jacamon. Fincher read the comics in the original and didn’t understand the words. Thanks to this, he realized that with sufficiently expressive images, dialogues are not needed for understanding. Similarly, with Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote Seven and forged the scripts for The Game and Fight Club, he thought about the script.
The killer sees himself as a super powerful killing machine. He doesn’t do anything that doesn’t bring him closer to his goal. The basis is the observance of rituals. He hardly sleeps. It disinfects the sink after each use. For him, food is not comfort, but fuel. Robotic repetition of actions and words, for example when practicing mindfulness or yoga, has a purely utilitarian function for him. He is not trying to achieve enlightenment, move somewhere, help someone. And the visual style of the film is equally effective and economical, based on varying several angles, compositions and types of continuity between shots.
Even the precise editing, where we move in time and space as if by snapping our fingers, corresponds to how the killer moves and murders. No ineffective contemplation. It goes straight to the point. The sound design is also a reflection of his mind, which alerts us to the transitions between subjective perception and a neutral point of view. When he plays songs by The Smiths, evidently a favorite band of uprooted serial killers, into his headphones, the music drowns out everything else. In other scenes, the sound anticipates what will happen in the next shot.
To be in control
Fincher’s design-minimalist novelty is to hit-man movies what Jeanne Dielman’s feminist drama was to housework movies: there’s zero psychology here, just a stark, deliberately repetitive record of daily routines where people are dispatched with the same methodical manner as Jeanne she was peeling potatoes. Above all, to occupy the body and mind with something at every moment, not to admit one’s loneliness, to divert attention from the inner emptiness.
Despite this manic concentration, which can be read as Fincher’s ironic reflection of his own perfectionism, the protagonist makes stupid mistakes and repeatedly loses the only thing on which he bases his identity – control. When off-screen for about the third time he says, “Predict. Don’t improvise”, we mischievously look forward to the exact opposite happening – the plan will fail and he will have to quickly figure out how to get out of the precarious situation. Static symmetrical shots in these moments, for example during a brutal, somewhat grotesquely exaggerated fight, are alternated with a hand-held camera.
The loss of certainty and falling out of the numbing rhythm, when we leave the killer’s head for a moment, shows the delusion the hero lives in and how absurd his clinging to bulletproof plans is. There are only a few similar cracks in the texture of the narrative. But they deviate so noticeably from the surgical precision of the other scenes that they stick in the memory. And they are also key to the interpretation of the film, which hides a biting commentary on the impasse the emphasis on individualism and self-assertion has led us to under the cloak of straightforward genre entertainment.
The identity of the killer’s clients and victims is irrelevant. The reasons why someone wants to kill someone are not too important either. The information acquisition holds our attention through the first two chapters where we know less than the killer. Now everything is clear. The schematic plot is based on the basic motifs of films about taciturn killers. Samurai, Leon, Ghost Dog… For Fincher, the story is primarily an excuse for stylistic variations and disruption of the audience’s expectations.
Cynicism and anti-capitalist sentiment
The killer spectacularly botches his Paris mission, for which he prepares for the first twenty minutes of the film, and himself becomes persona non grata. “So this is the first time,” he comments on his mistake, as a result of which an innocent woman dies. The contractor’s reaction will not take long. The killer’s girlfriend ends up in hospital in critical condition, and he sets out on a quest for revenge. But above all, he wants to save his tarnished reputation, to confirm to himself that he is still a cool, emotionless professional – even though his irrational behavior suggests otherwise.
The betrayal of the principles laid out during the prologue reveals that they were just puffed-up phrases that would be just as disingenuous if he repeated them a dozen more times. Repetition of words not corresponding to actions has a comic effect. In another film, a similar detour could lead to an existential epiphany and a change in outlook on life. For Fincher, it serves to scathingly deconstruct the neoliberal grindset, whose extreme, almost parodic form the killer represents.
The American filmmaker’s new film is closest to Fight Club in its cynicism and anti-capitalist sentiment. But there was still a possibility of defiance against the system in him. In The Killer, the control and self-preservation mechanisms of the system are too strong, and the numbness of the murdering freelancer—who consistently puts private pursuits before the public interest—is too great. At the same time, regular employees who were just following instructions are paying for the managers’ bad business decisions. The purge following a misfire is reminiscent of mass layoffs in large companies. Women and representatives of ethnic minorities are the first to suffer. The top boss, who bears the brunt of the responsibility, remains unpunished. In fact, he has no idea what he has set in motion with his order. For him, it wasn’t about people, it was about business. Nothing more than a few tens of thousands of dollars that left his account. At the top of the imaginary pyramid is not God or a ruler, but an idea vacuum.
Even a methodical killer doesn’t want to fix the world and save lives. It is enough for him to be sure that he will not lose the opportunity to continue realizing himself according to his ideas. Unlike the anti-heroes of Fight Club, they do not rebel against structures that alienate people from social reality. He just shrugs them off. He resigned himself to authentic experiences and relationships. They are of no benefit in his value-emptied world. He settled for a number of false identities and many millions of dollars, which he still cannot enjoy with his workaholism.
The film seems to end with a happy ending. But the presented image of happiness is just as fake as advertisements for branded perfumes and coffee capsules. The protagonist, unable to escape the social norm, which he still mocks in his mind, remains a cog in the market wheel. Although he pretends otherwise, his position in the system is nothing special, which is reflected in the places where he eats or the disguises in which we see him at events. One time he becomes a public service employee who delivers containers for recyclable waste, another time he becomes a courier for a transport company.
He cannot assert his free will. He has already lost his personality. It’s also probably alluded to in the penultimate line of his voiceover and Fincher’s final nudge to the audience: “Maybe you’re like me.” As thriller entertainment that strips the conventions of the genre to the core, The Killer is excellent. As a reflection on the people of late capitalism, so busy with the fulfillment of partial tasks that they do not see the dysfunctionality of the whole system, it even belongs to the best that Fincher has made.
The author is a film columnist.