What Lies Beneath ‘The Killer’
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What Lies Beneath ‘The Killer’

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“You put your money in one end, and your cassette comes out the other.”

So said David Fincher of the influential film and music video production company Propaganda Films, which he cofounded in the late ’80s after his Kubrick-biting PSA for the American Cancer Society made him a hot commodity. Propaganda’s mandate was antiestablishment cool; its roster eventually included young tyros like Michael Bay, Spike Jonze, and Zack Snyder. Its metaphorical jukebox, meanwhile, doubled as MTV’s Buzz Bin: In the early ’90s, the firm’s clients included Madonna, Aerosmith, and the Rolling Stones, each of whom got their money’s worth by letting these fledgling directors show off their skills.

The Propaganda crew owned their mercenary status, but in addition to collecting checks, they were paying dues. Fincher’s promo clips weren’t just eye-catching, they were visionary, and it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling. Circa 1992’s Alien 3, Fincher was being hyped as a hired gun, and notwithstanding that movie’s catastrophic backfire, he evolved—swiftly and without obvious compromise—into one of the most dazzling and contradictory filmmakers of his generation. Where his peers were dismissed by critics as peddling style over substance, Fincher was the director who miraculously transubstantiated one into the other—a full-metal alchemist whose chill tone and mean streak captured the Gen X moment. In his movies, reality didn’t just bite, it tore you apart.

Crucially, even as his budgets swelled and he started working with A-listers, Fincher refused to leave behind the semiotically charged shorthand of his music videos and commercials. Fight Club satirized an era of hard-sell tactics by inverting them (“You are not your khakis”), while The Social Network slyly allegorized Fincher’s salad days, channeling the impetuous ethos of Propaganda into a story of youthful hotshots trying to launch a Silicon Valley startup. “If there had been a mission statement [for Propaganda] at that time,” Fincher told The Believer in 2010, “it was the notion of all these kids in jeans with their laptops and their backpacks and their scooters, all coming to work at this place to tear a new asshole in this paradigm.” Typically, snotty noses, chipped shoulders, and asshole-ripping ambitions look better on 20-something interlopers than on 60-year-old Oscar nominees. But Fincher’s greatness has always been bound up in the tension between his before-his-years mastery and compulsory juvenilia—between the desire to infiltrate and dominate the industry and to bring it crashing down.

Fincher’s new thriller, The Killer, concerns a man who’s grown comfortable—if not lazy—working as a cog in a murderous machine. The titular character is a freelance assassin who spends his time perched in a series of ad hoc hunting blinds, waiting for targets to wander blithely into his crosshairs. His is not to question why, or who—the victims are somebody else’s problem, or at least they were before he took the job. “Fight only the battle you’re paid to fight,” he tells himself as part of the running interior monologue that makes up the majority of the movie’s script, delivered by Michael Fassbender with the same anodyne implacability as his synthetic David in the last two Alien-verse films. “Ask yourself, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

Suffice it to say that such bottom-line philosophizing gets tiring after a while. As in Fight Club, Fincher establishes a tone of smug, complicitous monotony for the express purpose of exploding it. So assured is Fassbender’s Killer of his own hardwired, thousand-hours-logged excellence that it’s surprising—and hilarious—when the job we’ve seen him prepping for during almost the entire Paris-set opening act goes awry, not because of any extenuating circumstances but because of honest, everyday human error. Cue the shivers of existential crisis: “This is new,” he tells himself, and us, while fleeing the scene with practiced yet slightly shaky aplomb. Fassbender, who is one of the most eloquent physical actors around, makes sure that we understand that the character is less worried about the potential consequences of his fuckup—which include a brutal assault on the lover he thought he had stashed away safely in the Dominican Republic—than he is mortified by the (meta)physics of his failure. He’s paralyzed by the possibility that he isn’t as good as he thinks he is.

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The premise of a mercenary virtuoso who’s suddenly and forcibly alienated from himself and his employers is at once interpretively fertile and generically familiar, especially once Fassbender opts for a trajectory of clandestine, globe-trotting vengeance. It’s easy to imagine a cheap, impersonal version of this material, something that you’d find flipping around on cable in the early 2000s. The big question with The Killer, which premieres on Netflix this week after a limited theatrical run, is not whether it’s more accomplished or entertaining than it has to be, or even whether it’s the cinematic equivalent of a jukebox programmed exclusively with the Smiths’ greatest hits, although in each case the answer is yes. Rather, the question is whether the film’s simple, almost minimalist narrative and cynical worldview are meant to be a form of mordant self-portraiture or are so fundamentally empty that there’s nothing for fans and detractors alike to do but try to personalize it like Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac, poring wombat-eyed over handwriting samples in search of an auteurist signature.

For his part, Fincher has mostly disavowed the idea of auteurism or the prevalence of hidden meanings or messages in his work, which is ironic given that coded communication is his great subject: He loves his mind games. In Fincher’s cinema, the message is the meaning: What’s being said is ultimately less important than the symbolic or metaphorical vocabulary being used to convey it. Take Zodiac, which is less a procedural or a period piece than an essay on paranoid social psychology in which the invisibility of a serial killer paradoxically provides proof of his presence. Fincher’s preferred character types are malevolently self-referential micromanagers like John Doe, Tyler Durden, or the Amazing Amy Dunne, whose crime scenes double as barely veiled mission statements or confessionals; even his warmest and most accessible movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, features the character of a master watchmaker whose handiwork is so precise that it turns back time itself. In this context, the images of Fassbender’s nameless assassin as he meticulously lines up potential kill shots through his sniper scope fit the public image of Fincher as a Kubrickian taskmaster, and ditto the asides about this particular line of work being both physically and psychically grueling (“It’s amazing how tiring it can be doing nothing”). It’s basically the same joke he pulled in Gone Girl when Tyler Perry’s Tanner Bolt kept pelting Ben Affleck’s Nick Dunne with gummy bears until the latter got his lines right, calling to mind anecdotes from Jodie Foster and others about the director’s compulsion for repetition. (“You’re a very sick man,” Foster told him on the set of Panic Room.) Other clues are more grotesquely baroque and subtly annotated in The Killer: At one point, while running through his kill list, our lethally innovative antihero subdues a victim with implements that seem like a nod to Fincher’s longtime composer and pal Trent Reznor. Surely this is the first movie in history in which a character is punctured with a set of nine-inch nails.

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There are limits to this kind of thinking, of course, and trying to create a one-to-one ratio between plot points and directorial biography can get ridiculous. For example: If Fassbender is Fincher, does that mean that the botched assignment that puts a target on his back is literally supposed to be Mank? Say that out loud and it sounds desperately silly, like a crackpot theory from one of the commentators in Room 237. Yet when our hypothetical auteur surrogate finally comes face-to-face with the high man on his own corporate totem pole, who does he find staring him down but Arliss Howard, the actor who played Louis B. Mayer, the incarnation of venal, profit-motivated showbiz moguldom in Mank? (With one notable change: Mayer’s power suit has been swapped out for a Sub Pop T-shirt.) “I wanted to show you how easy it was to get to you,” Fassbender says evenly to his boss-slash-quarry, who cowers in response. Should the Netflix executives who refused to greenlight Season 3 of Mindhunter be looking nervously over their shoulders?

Probably not. Even if Fincher’s filmography testifies to his enduring interest in—and intuition about—the psychology and methodology of serial killers, he’s a low-risk candidate to practice what his characters preach. Where The Killer gets significantly more interesting is in its evocation of larger late-capital structures beyond the maw of quality streaming content: the parade of corporately branded logos (WeWork, FedEx) and products (Amazon, McDonald’s) that figure into its narrative and function simultaneously as sight gags and skeleton keys toward unlocking a subtext of soulless hyper-contemporaneity. Most of the Killer’s disguises cast him as either a service worker or a delivery person—a detail that fuses amusingly with his true vocation, which obliges him to remain faceless and on the clock and also stuck inside his own head. Fittingly, the movie’s aura of buzzy twilight loneliness mimics our plugged-in moment, along with some great, shivery images, such as an unforgettable split-second shot of a flat-screen television shattered and oozing neon static during one action set piece.

In Fight Club, Fincher scored a satirical coup when he entombed Edward Norton’s (similarly nameless) narrator in a three-dimensional IKEA catalog—an enduring spoof of commodity fetishism. (“What kind of dining set defines me as a person?”) But at least Norton had a nest to feather: In The Killer, there are no homes, only the liminal, transactional spaces of hotels, airports, and rental cars, whose dull, ritualized procurement gives the film its rhythm. The other big difference is that where in Fight Club the self-divided but idealistic protagonist succeeded to some extent in damaging the system—culminating in that astonishing, eerily prescient tableau of collapsing office towers—the Killer isn’t out to undermine anything. “Nothing I do will put a dent in those metrics,” he notes when tallying up global statistics pertaining to life and death. And even though he’s ostensibly settling a personal score, his off-the-books mission is anything but righteous. The name of the game is self-preservation; even when presented with the opportunity to sever the head of the snake, he defers, not out of empathy but out of a callously calculated pragmatism.

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Fight Club was, of course, pilloried upon its release for its allegedly fascist aesthetics and ideology, while The Killer seems likely to pass through the content sphere more or less unnoticed—a sign either of Fincher’s own waning brand recognition or of how skillfully he’s managed to pass off such a harsh, unsparing social vision as just one more entertainment option on the Netflix landing page. (The paradox of a director with an impossible eye who doesn’t mind people encountering his work on improperly calibrated home entertainment systems is a riddle worthy of the Zodiac.) It should be said that even if you don’t think The Killer is conveying anything profound about the gig economy or its maker’s artistic process, it’s still replete with honest, grotty pleasures, especially a mid-film fight scene that features the director’s best use of handheld camera work since Se7en. There’s also an extended actorly duet between Fassbender and Tilda Swinton that introduces a few welcome, affecting notes of melancholy into the otherwise flatlined atmosphere, as well as probably the only overt verbal jab at Swinton’s impossibly regal screen persona that any filmmaker would ever dare make.

To return to the idea of The Killer as a meta-meditation on Fincher’s work, the hushed, elegiac feeling of Swinton’s scenes can’t help but recall her role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as a married woman who meets her potential soulmate in the wrong place and the wrong time. There’s no romance in the air this time, but there is a comparable feeling of life’s fragility, which, for a few short minutes, stops seeming like just another ruthless joke. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” says Swinton’s character of the certainty that one is facing the end, and the line hovers over the remainder of the film like a ghost—or maybe an angel of death. To say The Killer is unsentimental is an understatement, and yet there are enough tender touches—via Swinton, and via those jangly, gorgeous Smiths songs, with Morrissey’s voice dripping honeyed poison—to suggest something human lurking below the surface. For proof, don’t look to the final scene, which is almost self-parodically hollow, but to the final needle drop from Fincher’s jukebox: “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” an outcast’s lament that fuses love and death at a molecular level. Depending on how you look at it, the song is either beautiful enough to offset the designer ugliness of the movie preceding it, or vicious enough to complete its vision. Earworm or kill shot—it’s up to you.

SOURCE : www.theringer.com

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