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The CHIRP Blog

Kevin Fullam writesThe Fourth Wall: “The Killer”

Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the 2023 film The Killer.

This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.

Kevin:

"Stick to your plan. Anticipate, don't improvise." -- the titular protagonist of The Killer

Are we sure that The Killer doesn't moonlight as a day trader? As someone who watches the markets, I find myself repeating similar mantras each morning. But never fear, Ye Reader -- the soul-crushing monotony that describes the life of an assassin here is pretty much a non-starter for yours truly. Waiting. Waiting. Always waiting.

David Fincher's new film, The Killer, seems like a bit of a stylistic salute to his 1999 magnum opus Fight Club. Both are adaptations of novels and feature plenty of internal monologues. And both feature leads who possess a certain implacability born of shattered psyches. In the latter, The Narrator (Edward Norton) develops his Thousand-Yard Stare along his descent, whereas the eponymous "hero" (Michael Fassbender) of The Killer displays a stony demeanor from the opening bell.

If The Killer is on your trail, somebody very, very rich has decided that you should no longer be breathing. As Jaqen H'ghar from Game of Thrones once put it: "A minute, an hour, a month. Death is certain. The time is not." Until the day comes when death isn't certain -- a bystander gets in the way of a bullet meant for a target. The Killer's mission is aborted. And his employers, per standard operating procedure, immediately decide to cover their tracks by eliminating all loose ends.

Thus kicks off the heart of the tale, as The Killer realizes that he'll never be safe until his tracks are indeed covered... but in the opposite direction. Predator vs. prey? No. Predator vs. other predators. It's his employers and their hired guns who have to disappear.

In our previous Fourth Wall column about James Bond, I suggested that Daniel Craig was the "Terminator" version of 007. While Fassbender's Killer may not have the same imposing physical presence, he's every bit as dogged and ruthless. Empathy? The man has a haunted face. "Forbid empathy. Empathy is a weakness. Weakness is vulnerability." The question is, does he repeat these maxims because he knows that he's not inherently wired this way?

1) Clarence, how did you rationalize The Killer's temperament with the fact that this guy actually has a love interest? And one that he's willing to go on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge for? A master of compartmentalization? Or was this simply a MacGuffin to get The Killer in action, hunting down other wolves?

2) For a film titled The Killer, there was surprisingly little violence in the film, with only one extended fight scene, versus the aptly-named Brute. The battle is a doozy, with both combatants inflicting ridiculous amounts of punishment upon each other. What did you think about the pacing of the film and the casting of Fassbender?

3) The music! The Killer listens to The Smiths (and seemingly only The Smiths) during the entire tale. As Fincher put it, "I don’t think there’s a library of music by a recording artist that has as much sardonic nature and wit simultaneously. We don’t get an awful lot of access to who this guy is, and I thought through his mix tape, it would be amusing that that would be our window into him.” Thoughts?

4) People have contrasted this film with the John Wick series, which I haven't seen... but perhaps you have? And any other celluloid assassins you'd like to salute? With the stipulation that they're the lead characters in their respective stories. A few that come to mind:

-- La Femme Nikita (1990, with Anne Parillaud, remade as the 1993 American film Point of No Return with Bridget Fonda)
-- Léon: The Professional (1994, with Jean Reno grooming young Natalie Portman to follow in his footsteps)
-- Grosse Point Blanke (1997 with John Cusack -- perhaps the only film about an assassin that was an out-and-out comedy?)
-- Kill List (2011, Irish film with Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley -- this one goes to dark, dark places...)

And last but not least, a special mention of a film with no true lead characters:
-- Pulp Fiction (1994, Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, perfectly straddling the line between "ruthless killers" and "comic relief")

Clarence:

While I also haven't seen John Wick, I would add another Tarantino film to your list - Kill Bill (Vol. 1&2), which is among my favorites for several reasons, including how the actors thoroughly look, talk, and act like professional killers. I would also add a series I just saw, Blue Eye Samurai, an animated series that's among the best stories of any kind I've seen in a while. (Seriously, you've GOT to see it if you haven't already).

Other than Grosse Pointe Blank and Pulp Fiction, I haven't seen any of the others you mentioned, though I've heard great things about them. They're on my permanent list of movies I'm going to see at some point, though.

I thought Fassbender did a good job with the role, although I'm still thinking about the character. The first part of the movie is all about his patience, his meticulousness, his cool and calm... and then he shoots the wrong person? It makes me wonder if the audience is to take that mistake as ironic proof that his myopic world, the only one the audience has access to so far, isn't as robotic and airtight as he thinks it is. I thought using The Smiths as his personal soundtrack added a layer of unexpressed emotionalism to the character that helps explain his reaction to what happened to his girlfriend. Despite all his meditations and mantras, he has feelings just like anybody else.

It's funny how it's his mistake that motivates everything that comes after. I can't think of another movie quite like that - usually in a crime film when something goes wrong it's because the criminal decides to double-cross somebody for personal gain. And while there's only one fight scene (and it's incredibly well done), there's a nice sense of pace throughout the movie, as The Killer scrambles from place to place in the wake of his fatal error. This is due to Fincher's mastery as a director. Just about everything in this film (the editing, the scenery, the cinematography) is handled brilliantly.

That being said, the story itself ultimately felt somewhat slight and even inconsequential. Confusing, too. When The Killer finally confronts the rich "mastermind" who put everything in motion, his course of action doesn't quite match that of the other stops in his journey where he's willing to use ultra-violent methods toward anyone (including innocent cab drivers) to get what he wants. What did you think of the ending? Is it saying something about the nature of wealth and power and how it grants "plot armor" to people who have enough of it? And what did you think of how all of The Killer's aliases are names of 1970s sitcom characters? Did it take you out of the story at all, or maybe it reinforced the whole thing as a kind of homage to those '70s-'80s Movies of the Week that made up so much of the TV network schedule back in the day...?

Kevin:

Good question about the sitcom aliases. On one hand, what are the odds that a young hotel staffer (especially those overseas) would recognize the name of an American television character whose heyday was decades before they were born? Rather slim. But even that would constitute an unnecessary risk, so why would The Killer take it? Perhaps it's a cry for help, in that he wants to be caught? And this is his way of having a wry laugh at the world until the jig is up?

With regards to The Killer walking away from his final would-be target ("The Client"), this certainly could be construed as "plot armor" for the rich, as you said. But:

1) It was clear that The Client harbored no malice for The Killer, and was unaware that he had authorized the elimination of the latter.

2) True, The Killer had murdered innocents (such as that cab driver) during his quest for revenge. But after that had been achieved, did it make sense to keep going? The perps responsible for brutalizing his lover had been slain, as had their employer (who had ordered the attack). After learning item #1, The Killer held no personal animus towards The Client. And it wasn't like The Client could put up any sort of resistance, so a bullet through the head would've seemed empty, somehow? Like taking coins from a blind man's cup.

3) The Killer did put the Fear of God into The Client before leaving...

As far as a critical mistake kicking the whole plot into overdrive... it's not quite the same, but let's look at Pulp Fiction. The small-time crooks in the apartment ("What does Marcellus Wallace look like??") bungle the point-blank hit of both Jules and Vincent. Then Vince accidentally takes the head off poor Marvin in the car ("you went over a bump or something..."), leading to both the Winston Wolf scene as well as Jules' showdown with "Ringo" at the diner.

[There's also Fabienne's grievous error in forgetting Butch's gold watch, but she's a civilian, so we'll let that slide.]

I'll leave you with two questions:

1) Where would you rank The Killer as far as Fincher's oeuvre? We did discuss a previous Fincher project, Mindhunter, earlier in The Fourth Wall, but didn't cover Fincher's body of work in general during that dialogue. I mentioned Fight Club during my intro -- where do you stand on the film?

[Edward Norton had a ridiculous run right out of the gate in the mid-'90s: five of his first six films were Primal Fear, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Rounders, American History X, and Fight Club... all in a four-year window.]

2) I hear you as far as the plot of The Killer being a bit thin. There are lots of great plotless dramas/comedies -- such as the walk-and-talk Before trilogy, Nomadland (also covered here!), Training Day, and Swingers. Plotless action films? Hmm. As Joseph Campbell put it, it's all about the "Hero's Journey," right? Gotta be striving for something! Anything come to mind for you?

Clarence:

Is it possible to have a plotless action movie? I’ll have to think about that. But since you mentioned it, I would like to say that Joseph Campbell has not been great for overall film discussion. His Grand Theory of Storytelling is so limiting, and gives legitimacy to those who think that "If it’s not some kind of Hero’s Journey. it’s not a 'real' story."

Campell’s formula also enables studios who are always looking for formulas they can use to mass-produce their product without having to think too much. Creativity becomes even less of a factor in storytelling when all you have to do is trace within the lines, so to speak.

When thinking about Fincher, I’ll always put Fight Club and Se7en at the top of the list. Those are all-time great movies that came along just at the right place and right time, when major studios were hungry for left-field projects with "indie cred." I’d list The Killer below those two, which in no way means it’s a bad movie. In fact, I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that Fincher generally doesn’t make bad movies.

[BTW, I’m not an expert on celebrity gossip, but I’ve read that Edward Norton over the years has gotten a reputation of being a perfectionist and difficult to work with. When you start your career making those films, though, I can see how that might set a certain standard in your mind…!]

What will stay with me most about The Killer is its craftsmanship, how well put-together it is in terms of visuals and pacing. For the last decade we’ve been in an extended era of superhero sagas that follow a specific formula. I would argue that this era is winding down, and studios may have to go back to the old ways of telling stories with directors who let their expertise shine. Fincher’s work shows that the people who can do that kind of work are still out there.

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