The assassin trope has always bugged me because assassin movies too greatly challenge the suspension of disbelief. In the past I’ve commented on how the con artist movie does this same thing, but assassin films take it a step too far. Of all the criticism I heaped on Fargo Season 1, Billy Bob Thornton’s ridiculous hitman took the cake.
Let’s face it, lone wolf assassins don’t exist. No network of super-secret handlers can be called upon to hire a professional killer. Real assassins belong to criminal subcultures like the mob or a cartel or a government. The assassin, as depicted in these films, is no more real than a wizard or vampire. Because of this, the trope only works when the film acknowledges its own core absurdity.
Usually hitman movies distract from their ridiculousness using black comedy, extreme spectacle, or some combination of both. Grosse Pointe Blank, Collateral, and Pulp Fiction come to mind. The only thing an assassin flick can do that’s worse than providing an audience time to think about the logical structure of its universe is to actively invite them to do so. The Killer does both and doesn’t even provide the courtesy of a couple laughs.
Not a Killer Plot
The most cliché assassin story involves a hardened assassin who experiences a moment of weakness which causes them to become a target. Usually this is an unexpected emotional attachment, but it can also take the form of screwing up a job, developing a conscience, an attempt to retire, or even finding religion. Using offense as the best form of defense, the assassin uses his super assassin powers to kill a bunch of henchmen until the plot climaxes with a confrontation of the primary antagonist (usually his former employer).
The Killer follows the cliché assassin plot every step of the way, it just slows everything way down. Our protagonist screws up a job, a loved one suffers the consequences, he retaliates against his employer, retaliates against those contracted by his employer, and then retaliates against the initial client. That’s the whole movie. It ends with a pithy line which essentially says, “assassins have feelings, too.” This unoriginal thought is supposed to be a sort of retort to the terrible voice over that plagues the audience throughout.
Director David Fincher depicts each scene with great patience and care. Taken as individual scenes, the movie demonstrates quality film making. But the whole amounts to much less than the sum of its parts. Most films depicted with patience and care have a real theme. They have a creative impetus. Patiently unfolding scenes works great for films that communicate intellectually weighty ideas because that sort of experience asks the audience to think. Thinking is the last thing you want the audience of a cliché assassin flick to do.
The silly voice over has the trappings of the profound, but hearing our protagonist offer nihilistic rationalizations for his behavior over the course of the film never hits its intended ironic mark. The Killer wants to present itself as a narrative with a point, as something distinct from the collection of tropes it leverages, but perhaps the only unique part about it is to infuse noir pacing into a genre ill-suited for it.
In my younger years I participated in a writers group focused on “transgressive” fiction. This niche can best be exemplified by David Fincher’s ’90s films Se7en and Fight Club. The two key characteristics of this genre are 1) shocking content that transgresses conventions and 2) an emphasis on technique. Basically, all the stuff that was considered cool in the ’90s and Fincher was the master. Later in his career, Fincher would branch out from his characteristic style, but The Killer unapologetically returns to form.
As much as The Killer adheres to the clichés of assassin flicks, it also follows the most common transgressive template. A nihilistic journey of vice, in which the nihilism and vice take center stage throughout, gets turned on its head at the end with an attempt to craft an O’Henry style ending which acknowledges the importance of sentimentality and scorns the worldview that has been so extensively elaborated upon. This half-hearted gesture seems to be the author’s way of saying, “This work may seem like the product of a sick mind who invests tons of energy articulating weird fucked up shit, but it’s really satire. I promise!”
Transgressive fiction works best when employing black humor (Fight Club) or when the protagonist can morally anchor the story (Se7en). In the former case, claims of satire can be more than just a fig leaf. In the latter, the transgressive world can antagonize the hero. Otherwise, you get the distinct impression that you’re just reading sick fantasies. The Killer is a sick fantasy. It’s Dexter without being so cheesy. It piles on the realism everywhere except its central premise. It’s an assassin flick with no elevator pitch and no point.
I never really covered the acting or cinematography or other elements of The Killer. These elements, like most Fincher films, are great. The Killer provides plenty of style and great performances, but none of that can distract from its inherently silly and cliché premise.