Cold, emotionless, calculated. The killer is a man with a set of rules. “Stick to the plan,” he reminds himself. “Forbid empathy,” his internal monologue tells him. “Anticipate, don’t improvise.” But when a job goes wrong and matters get personal, he finds himself abandoning the code he typically lives by. It’s a sort of archetype that’s been done before, but David Fincher’s “The Killer” still stands tall as an expertly made revenge thriller and character study of a contract killer.
After a failed assassination attempt at a Parisian penthouse, two other killers are sent after actor Michael Fassbender’s unnamed hitman, his girlfriend (played by Sophie Charlotte) winding up as a casualty of the conflict. With her in the hospital, he sets out for vengeance, his path leading him to encounters with a supporting cast including Charles Parnell, Kerry O’Malley, Sala Baker, Tilda Swinton and Arliss Howard.
Adapted from writer Matz and illustrator Luc Jacamon’s French comic book series of the same name and told in episodic fashion — its six chapters receive simple designations like The Target, The Hideout, The Lawyer, The Brute, The Expert and The Client, paired with locations spanning Paris and the Dominican Republic to New Orleans, Florida, New York and Chicago, respectively, plus an epilogue — “The Killer” reunites Fincher with “Seven” scribe Andrew Kevin Walker, whose handling of dark material pairs perfectly with noted perfectionist Fincher’s typically slick direction. From its propulsive opening credits through its methodical narrative and thrilling set pieces, it’s a return to the types of stories Fincher’s typically associated with after the 2020 passion project “Mank,” a more conventional, black-and-white biopic of “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.
Sometimes looking like a sort of updated take on Alain Deleon’s fedora’d protagonist from Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 French noir “Le samouraï,” Fassbender does a lot of the heavy lifting with his eyes. Whether he’s Lou Grant, Sam Malone, Robert Hartley, George Jefferson or any of the other famous television characters whose names he wears as disguises, the killer, a man of few words often left alone with his thoughts (a characteristic reminiscent of filmmaker Paul Schrader’s recurring man-in-a-room motif), finds solace in the music of the Smiths, whom he uses for distraction and improved focus.
Dark, violent and often disturbing, Fincher’s film finds levity in its frequent dalliances with humor. It’s hard not to laugh at the image of Fassbender cruising around listening to the Smiths, plotting his next steps, or at his wondering of “What would John Wilkes Booth do?” after an “unprecedented” mistake during the initial hit, or even at a meta line referring to “three 9-inch nails” from a nail gun.
That’s because in addition to numerous classics from the 1980s jangle pop outfit — including the intentionally obvious “Girlfriend in a Coma” — as well as a crime scene discovery set to Portishead’s “Glory Box,” the film is scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, marking the Nine Inch Nails duo’s fifth full collaboration with Fincher. The original music fluctuates between delicate piano melodies and ambience to the more foreboding, with pulsing synths, ominous drones and dissonant, high-pitched tones. The score often feels deliberately integrated into scenes as opposed to purely background noise, creating an uncomfortable atmosphere that sounds like the musical equivalent of an anxious pit at the bottom of one’s stomach.
“The Killer” may not be received as one of Fincher’s more prestigious efforts — it’s a straight genre picture that, despite the obvious craft involved, one would be hard-pressed to predict receiving many, if any, Academy Awards nominations — but it’s no less essential viewing and is certainly bound to find its fans among those who connect with its blend of dark subject matter and self-aware humor in telling a familiar story.
“The Killer” begins streaming on Netflix on Friday, Nov. 10.