The stripped-down title of The Killer (now playing in select cinemas and streaming on Netflix starting November 10) gives you a pretty clear idea of what you are in for, both plot- and tone-wise.
As it opens, we meet the nameless assassin (Michael Fassbender) methodically preparing for a job. And it is just a job. We know little beyond a few context clues about the shooter or his target. We just know the assignment is for one to end the other’s life.
The long planning sequence could have really built to something. Instead, it’s overloaded with problematic voiceover (Internal monologue? Later testimony? Video game tutorial? Wha?) that’s more awkward than insightful. Truth be told, I kept imagining it being delivered by Woody Allen a la Manhattan’s “He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved” opening.
In this lengthy setup, we only hear about this killer’s successes, but we’ll take his word for it. Whoever he is, he’s been successful at his job. But we don’t see that. The plot, such as it is, gets rolling when he screws up, making him the target of others who ply his trade. The result is more of a cat-and-cat game than the traditional cat-and-mouse one, and you’d think it could generate more excitement.
The relentless monologuing, a Smiths-heavy tune stack and a Trent Reznor / Atticus Ross score — one that often crosses the line from music to sound effects — don’t add much insight into this guy. But that seems the point for director David Fincher (Panic Room) and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en), who have adapted the French noir comics by the team of Luc Jacamon and Matz.
There are attempts at humor — including a running gag about the assassin’s many fake IDs that, like the film itself, doesn’t build but rather just offers more of the same.
Those whose entertainment choices include shootie-shoot video games may more readily adapt than I did to the film’s flat-affect stoicism and enjoy its mechanics. I was never bored; there was often a when-will-a-trigger-be-pulled tension. But with no reason to care about anyone on either side of the equations, the stakes here seemed low.
I’m glad, however, that I didn’t check the supporting cast, so I was actually surprised and pleased by the appearance of a preeminent actress as one of the killer’s encounters. The location and circumstances of the scene are improbable at best, but her aria of a monologue proved one of the film’s too-few bright spots.
Less than 48 hours after seeing the film, I honestly can’t recall the ending of The Killer. A few decades after seeing the similarly cold The Conversation, the ending is what has stuck with me the most.
I think that says something.