Michael Fassbender is ‘The Killer’ on Netflix

David Fincher strips away the assassination thriller to its essentials in The Killer (2023).

Michael Fassbender, the unnamed killer of the title, is not your usual cinema assassin. He’s not suave or cool or fiercely imposing, and there’s nothing flamboyant about him. Patient and practically invisible in the anonymous guise of a vaguely German tourist in Paris, he cases his latest target with the discipline of a veteran. The surveillance and waiting is, frankly, tedious and Fassbender’s utterly focused and self-disciplined pro approaches it like a Zen warrior without a soul or self-awareness.

There isn’t a lot of dimension to this icy, minimalist crime thriller and that’s by design. He’s an international assassin who slips through the world under a variety of fake identities and unassuming disguises designed to blend in with the crowd, says very little but keeps up a running internal monologue of aphorisms that take the place of introspection.

“Stick to your plan. Anticipate, don’t improvise. Trust no one,” he chants to himself like a mantra, and continues with a litany of increasingly abstract and emptily inspiring little nuggets of wisdom. “This is what it takes if you want to succeed.”

In the 1960s we had enigmatic professional killers like Alain Delon in La samouraï but they had a kind of professional code. This man has no code of ethics, no inner life, and no motivation other than his objective. When the latest job goes awry, the international assassin organization decides to terminate his employment. Even when they strike perhaps the only person in the world that he loves (Sophie Charlotte), his response is patient, cold-blooded, and ruthlessly efficient as he works his way through the system.

Seven screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker adapts the graphic novel series by Alexis Nolent and Luc Jacamon and he and Fincher pare down the genre thriller to its most direct. Apart from his civilian girlfriend, these characters have identities more than names: the Lawyer (Charles Parnell), the Client (Arliss Howard), and the Brute (Sala Baker). Tilda Swinton plays the meticulous epicurean assassin turned company woman, called the Expert in the credits.

The Killer also has affinities with John Boorman’s Point Blank (1968), a sixties neo-noir of a man on a mission with monomaniacal focus who has carved out their isolation from society. Where that film brought organized crime into the corporate world, this one simply takes that for granted: a killer savant in a corporate culture. And for a guy with no sense of humor, he has a good time playing pop culture games with his false travel identities.

It’s really more of a genre exercise than a character piece and some critics found it empty and one-dimensional. I happen to like sleekly-made genre exercises directed with style and this embraces its odyssey.

The crisp cinematography is by Erik Messerschmidt, who won an Oscar for Fincher’s previous feature Mank, and the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross earned an award at the Venice Film Festival.

Rated R

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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