Murderers abound in the cinema of David Fincher, yet up until now they’ve tended to operate on the margins (Se7en, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) or hardly appeared at all (Zodiac, Gone Girl). Fincher returns with The Killer, premiering in competition at the Venice Film Festival and a film that plays to his directorial strengths and artistry. Based on Alexis “Matz” Nolent and Luc Jacamon’s popular series of French comics from the late ’90s, The Killer is the first of Fincher’s crime stories to not only place the criminal at its center but to delight in the ruthless rationalizations of his inner mind.

It’s the latest chapter in Fincher’s long history with Netflix, and while easily suited to the streamer’s house aesthetic––episodic structure; quick, flashy titles (reminiscent, in a way, of one of the director’s iconic DVD menus); a color palette and tone that is never too light and never too dark––it brings together a perfect marriage of director and source material, offering a reminder of his signature brooding style. Fincher has always been at his best with characters who understand his own meticulous attention to detail. His latest Type A protagonist, an unnamed assassin credited only as “The Killer,” certainly fits that bill, the kind of guy who listens exclusively to the Smiths (if only the greatest hits) and can tell you the exact protein count of a bacon-and-egg McMuffin. He’s played by a perfectly cast Michael Fassbender (decked out in improbable linens), returning to screens for the first time in four years. It really has been that long. I’ve missed that alligator smile.

In a brilliant opening act, Fincher plays it like a riff on Rear Window. Patiently staking out a wealthy target, the Killer sits in a half-built Parisian office, scanning the neighbors with the sight from his rifle, and dispensing pearls of wisdom in voiceover. (“Pull with a measured squeeze,” he explains, “so that the trajectory is not impeded by vintage glass.” That kind of stuff.) After a mishap on the job, Fincher shifts to a classic revenge arc, moving the action to the Dominican Republic––where a lover lies in hospital––and on to New Orleans. The drama escalates through a series of liminal spaces (an airport, a gym, a storage facility, a ferry) and tightly wound set pieces. Fincher seems fascinated by the pragmatism and mundanity of the job. (At one point the Killer orders a gizmo off Amazon—one of few peculiar product placements.) As ever with his work, the devil is in the detail.

Fassbender’s mesmeric hold would be almost absolute were it not for the arrival of Tilda Swinton as a rival assassin. Sitting face-to-face in a cozy restaurant, downing a flight of whiskeys one by one, she brings a different kind of energy to the film that you almost wouldn’t realize it was lacking. Given someone to play off, a near-mute Fassbender delivers his best moments of the film––he hasn’t sat with such intensity since Hunger, and it made me wonder what Fincher would have done with a mind like Bobby Sands. In a film of taut sequences––other highlights include a coldly practical interrogation and a thrilling fight that is unlike anything Fincher has shot before––it manages to stand out.

At the New York Film Festival in 2010, the director interrupted Todd McCarthy’s glowing introduction to remind him that his films thus far were not only great but “different.” That interview was for the premiere of The Social Network, a film many (myself included) would consider his masterpiece. Since then it’s been a bit more patchy: two mostly agreeable adaptations of wildly successful novels and a passion project based on a script his father wrote––a film that suggested Orson Welles, of all people, was a hack. Reconnecting with screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker for the first time since Se7en, and with the usual Fincher regulars on board (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score, Erik Messerschmidt camerawork, Kirk Baxter editing, Don Burt production design), The Killer makes the case for doing to what you do best. It’s a clear return to form.

The Killer premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and opens in theaters on October 27 before arriving on Netflix on November 10.

Grade: B+

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