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First impressions of David Fincher's The Killer, and the end of a bargain-movie era
The "Fight Club" director's craftsmanship remains strong, his action kinetic, his work with actors remarkable. But in this misfire, he doesn't have a story worth telling.
Director David Fincher’s new feature film for Netflix, The Killer — the episodic story of a doggedly professional assassin whose discipline begins to disintegrate under pressure — is as cold as a flight of whiskeys without any of the fun of a lingering buzz.
And let me pause to acknowledge that, yes, I'm well aware that there's a problem if I'm disappointed that a movie about a rifle-wielding murderer isn't very "fun."
Perhaps it isn't "fun" because a rifle-wielding murder just slaughtered a bunch of civilians in Maine.
Perhaps it isn't "fun" because the reality of widespread bloodshed has very likely been influenced by American moviegoers' unquestioning embrace of, and constant fascination with, the "cool" of gunslingers.
Some of us can look at trigger-happy protagonists through lenses of critical thinking. We can separate what Fassbender's gunman on the screen is doing from what is being condoned. But at what cost have we normalized the appearance of sexy, admired, award-winning actors on movie posters holding guns?
I have no doubt that if there's a gun on a movie poster, people are more likely to go see that movie. So... money! I also have no doubt that for every three or four people who can watch a story about a gunslinger without turning around and deciding to become one, there are probably one or two who lack that critical discernment. This is a problem, and it makes me hyper-aware of the people around me in the theater during a movie like this. Who's going to miss "the point"? Who's going to want to be that guy sneaking around, all cool and professional, with his storage closets full of assault weapons? Who might be struggling with mental illness, with a sense of invisibility, with perceived disrespect? Might they leave this movie and decide that a gun might get them taken seriously? Is there anybody in the theater right now who is carrying?
Okay... forgive me my moralizing. God forbid I spoil anybody’s good vibes.
Back to film criticism.
When I heard Fassbender deliver a variation on Brad Pitt's "How's that workin' for you?" line from his own Fight Club, I was like... "Really, Fincher?" I mean, there's a lot about this that feels tired and derivative, but that's just depressing.
I don't mind genre films that satisfy with solid craftsmanship and little more than that, usually. I'm a big fan of Soderbergh's Haywire, for example; it's so slick and funny. Even better than that, his concentrated masterpiece The Limey does so much with so little.
And Fincher's craftsmanship is, as usual, suave and professional—more than sufficient to elevate a great story. As many have already observed, this film is kind of like Fincher on Fincher: an analogy of his dedication to making tightly wound films in which every scene snaps into place with Hitchcockian precision. It feels, at times, like a manifesto… and, occasionally, like a confession.
But that’s the problem: This story doesn’t seem to contribute anything new to the conversations about ethics, compromises, cruelty, and heart-hardening professionalism that Fincher has already examined in films I find far more provocative (and, occasionally, almost profound) — Seven (1995), Fight Club (1997), Zodiac (2007), and The Social Network (2010). There's nobody here in this narrative I care about at all, no one whose flickers of something-close-to-conscience are halfway interesting. Unless you’re easily persuaded to root for a career killer who rejects empathy as weakness—and let’s face it, the world’s in trouble because of how many people will readily do just that—you’re not likely to feel invested in how this sequence of events is resolved.
Unfortunately arriving just as Wes Anderson’s four-movie marathon of Roald Dahl adaptations inspires critical acclaim, each installment an adrenaline rush that elevates narration to the level of performance art, The Killer’s incessant and ironic narration becomes tiresome early.
I can’t blame Michael Fassbender for the film’s forgettable slightness or its unpleasant aftertaste. He commits fully, as he always does. It’s remarkable, actually, how his face is sometimes so stony and severe, and other times a roiling cloud of conflict, while if you took screenshots of both moments and put them side by side they might look identical. I can’t blame Tilda Swinton, either. She’s the other reason I was eager to see this, and when she finally arrives onscreen, she’s magnificent, even though I’d pretty much given up on the story taking any meaningful turns.
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2023 is turning out to be a big year for some of America’s most celebrated white-guy auteurs, with Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, and Christopher Nolan delivering some of the most ambitious work of their already remarkable careers. By contrast, Fincher seems to be aiming for something smaller, something precise and polished, a precision instrument more like a tightly wound Swiss watch than the flashy Apple watch that gets advertised every time the assassin assembles the multi-stage rockets of his firearms. And I’m all for that. In my experience, something small, efficient, and carefully crafted make a stronger and more lasting impression than something intent on overwhelming us with its proportions instead of its poignance.
Unfortunately, The Killer is just what 2023 doesn’t need: two hours in which we give our attention — and, if we’re not discerning enough, our admiration — to a methodical murderer who commits himself to that central Bible verse of Antichrist America: the one about “an eye for an eye.”
Finally, a sudden subject switcheroo:
The biggest disappointment of my trip to see The Killer?
R.I.P. to Seattle’s best option for bargain movie tickets.
I've always recommended Landmark’s Crest Cinema Center to friends and neighbors for how it has preserved the good old-fashioned neighborhood movie theater aesthetic, right down to its eye-poppingly affordable ticket prices. From the time I moved to Seattle in 1989 to less than a decade ago, I was paying about $3 or $4 for a movie ticket. (In one of my favorite Seattle encounters, I met Bill and Melinda Gates in line outside the theater one evening as they headed inside to see The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Gotta love that Bill remains faithful to his local bargain theater! Would you believe that the other time I met him, he was picking up bags full of burgers from the city’s most famously cheap burger joint?)
Then, in what I suspect was a strategy to survive the pandemic lockdowns, the prices rose to about $8. I begrudgingly accepted that. I wanted my local theater to survive.
But The Killer dealt me sticker shock: I was charged $12 for an ordinary ticket.
I realize that’s still cheaper than tickets at the big flashy cineplexes. But it means that Seattleites whose budget can’t accommodate the going-rate for movie tickets now lack the one good option they’d relied on. This may seem like a petty complaint, but it’s important to me: I grew up spending countless hours at Portland’s Village theater that offered double features of great movies for only 99-cents. I could never have afforded regular moviegoing otherwise. And that’s where my love for cinema took root and grew. I wouldn’t be here reviewing movies if it hadn’t been for that affordable option.
For so many years, The Crest made me feel loyal and happy to support the neighborhood theater for a one-digit ticket price. Now there's no reason to recommend the place anymore — it’s substandard in almost every way, and now we have to pay as if it isn’t. Perhaps they've reached a point of desperation, just trying to stay open. I’m sure it’s not the fault of the staff who work there (and I can’t imagine how poorly they’re paid). But at these prices, I will always choose to drive 30 minutes to a bigger, flashier theater for better screens and better sound systems.
I’m sure the day will come when the theater closes and I feel sad about that. But it won’t be a major loss anymore. What made The Crest distinct is now a closed chapter of history. And it’s the end of a three-decade-routine for me.