Hardly Working: David Fincher's "The Killer"

What should we watch when a digital movie becomes digital content about our digital anxiety?
Carlos Valladares

The Killer

The Killer (David Fincher, 2023).

How do you make a good movie in this country and be jumped on?

Once, in 1967, in the opener for her Bonnie and Clyde review, Pauline Kael asked the opposite question: “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?” Now, times have changed. Nothing provokes us to jump and say, “Hold the torches! That’s the key! The way forward.”

An automatic film like David Fincher’s new thriller, The Killer, comes and goes with the velocity of a Twitter news cycle: about six fervent days of talk. (The seventh and beyond? Fits and bursts of takes amid miles of silence.) Whether you think it’s good or bad (I think it’s extremely well-made and clever, though it didn’t pierce me—which is by conscious design), The Killer has not lingered in the popular consciousness. And I can’t imagine it lingering. It might have passed me by with the similarly fleeting presence of recent moving-image works like Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 1/2 (2022), Dee Rees’s Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted (2020), or Raoul Peck’s Sven Lindqvist’s (and Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s [and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s]) Exterminate all the Brutes (2021), all of whose existence I became aware of ages after their immediate cultural relevance. These I came across far outside the temporal window-of-hype weakly drummed up by Netflix and other streamers that seems to exist for maybe the cumulative total of a fortnight. That’s the nature of Hollywood films in the age of streaming. They are little discussed outside of their own cultural niches. They are good for employing people and giving them a modest-to-meager living—though, as the dismal results for the actors’ strike show, not too well and perhaps not for long.

When friends or strangers at bars report to me that they’ve seen a streaming-only release, I always express shock.

“You’ve heard of ‘x’?” I ask.

“No,” they say. “I just was browsing on Netflix one night and it was there.”

Voilà: a film is now just there. It is not discovered, or dug from the depths, like Scorsese happening upon Italian neorealist flicks on late-night '50s TV. It is not heard about in advance, anticipated, and then avidly watched. A movie now is only perceived and absorbed as yet more content. Because of the endless scroll, we (falsely but understandably) think we have seen everything available. The moving image, so omnipresent on our phones and in our daily lives, doesn’t bear a dark-enclosing specialness. This is the world The Killer masterfully reflects.

If we can say The Killer does anything, it’s that it takes the sting out of death. The homogeneity of death: the flatline on a flat screen is taken to a deadly literal degree. Again, this is the opposite of what Pauline Kael saw, once, in a film by Arthur Penn named Bonnie and Clyde. The forceful, effusive words of her New Yorker review held uncommon sway: they raised the notoriety for the film, which initially tanked upon its August 1967 release, yet they also aided in the swift ejection of the outdated, then-current film critic of the New York Times, Bosley Crowther, whose negative review of Bonnie and Clyde creaked terribly next to Kael’s propulsive prose. This, in turn, contributed to Warner Bros.’s decision to re-release the film in early 1968, when it became a sleeper hit. Yes, such critical words had an effect. But 1967 is not 2023. The furious Hollywood squibs of Bonnie and Clyde, an evolution after the pockmark gun wounds of 1930s gangster flicks with Cagney and Muni, have given way to the homilies of a mute killer whose bullets don’t even strike their victim. We’ve almost closed a loop. Film isn’t a central, major obsession the way it was with the Kael-Sontag-Rosenbaum-Sarris generation. What now constitutes “sting” has dramatically dampened.

Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967).

Let’s turn to Kael’s observations in her final paragraph of her Bonnie and Clyde review:

Once something enters mass culture, it travels fast. In the spoofs of the last few years, everything is gross, ridiculous, insane; to make sense would be to risk being square. A brutal new melodrama is called “Point Blank,” and it is. So are most of the new movies. This is the context in which “Bonnie and Clyde,” an entertaining movie that has some feeling in it, upsets people—people who didn’t get upset even by “Mondo Cane.” Maybe it’s because “Bonnie and Clyde,” by making us care about the robber lovers, has put the sting back into death.

What today’s billboard films definitely don’t have is sting. The situation as described by Kael has not changed significantly: now, though, the crisis of feeling has deepened. The characters are grotesquely proportioned. The marketable protagonists we are given are not those for whom eccentricity and weird details are the chief hues that are coaxed and cared for by directors. At their most common, they are flatly repugnant (Ernest Burkhart and William King Hale, Lydia Tár, the Bones and All couple), they dissolve into a background of abject noise (Manny Torres and Nellie LeRoy, the Wang family of Everything Everywhere All at Once, the unconvincing trio of Past Lives). Or else, they are recognizable IP: Elvis and Priscilla, The Batman, The Barbie. To varying degrees, I watch their machinations willingly but without feeling, as though they pop! off the screen and embed themselves into a collective, myth-happy unconscious. This year, the two big protagonists cared about by millions globally, the heroine and hero at the center of the greatest triumph of movie-biz advertising since the last James Cameron, were a doll and the American who invented the A-bomb. Not much sting here: the deaths of Japanese and Koreans in Oppenheimer are disappeared in a convenient “it’s-from-the-American-perspective!” narrative structure, and the pleasant Barbie jibes and guffaws soon disintegrate like cotton candy once you leave the overpriced AMC.

Fincher, of course, is in his own league—which the suits at Netflix have figured out, thus adding “Auteur” in between “Action/Adventure” and “Black Lives Matter” as one of their packaged subgenres. Fincher’s interest in the possibilities of digital have always been pronounced, and he has made multiple great works—Zodiac (2007), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), The Social Network (2010), Gone Girl (2013)—about this anxiety when faced with pixel-era fracture, the overbearing presence of information without curation, a face that’s not only not a face, but might not even be there. In The Killer, this digital anxiety almost subsumes the film, such that it nearly embodies the very object it seems to be slyly sending up. The inner monologue spouted off by the Killer is a parade of bad Tweets masquerading as “hitman philosophy”—“I serve no God or country,” “Empathy is weakness, weakness is vulnerability”—and is mixed in with parodic koans of tech-bro insight that becomes gasp-inducingly hilarious: “What would John Wilkes Booth do?”; “I used to book a lot through Airbnb.”

Voilà, more ironic distance from the stuff of life. It’s part a gag, yeah, but Fincher keeps up such a magnificent poker-face that, from an angle, you can see it being the story of lost idealisms. The conciliatory ending—a billionaire getting off scot-free, killer and girlfriend yukking it up in the Caymans—only adds to the venomous feeling of defeat, and the feeling that the artist in his middle period is reflecting on his prestigious position in the technocapitalist hell-web in which he is stuck.

The Killer

The Killer (David Fincher, 2023).

I have delayed getting to my task at hand—analysis of The Killer—because its digital dissemination is, in part, the film’s very subject, even if on the surface it seems to be solely concerned with the predictably unpredictable patterns of a deconstructed, 2020s, cool-ish hitman (Michael Fassbender). It fits into a tried-and-true US movie tradition centered around sad-sack hit men: the Yankophile Frenchman Jean-Pierre Melville, the British transplant John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), and the Boston-set The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) all come to mind. But Killer pays no homage-obsessed lip service to a hallowed past. David Fincher, who’s been keenly interested in the lies concealed by the digital image, is more interested in a hitman in the age of Amazon Marketplace and Uber. “Who needs a Trojan horse when you have Postmates?” asks the Killer, who, in the climactic confrontation, easily manages to walk into his billionaire target’s house with just his phone and a to-go bag of noodles. Psychedelic club beatdowns with random fly judo moves, this is not.

But there’s another reason I avoid talking directly about The Killer. It presents a digitally polished Paris, a digitally polished Dominican Republic, a digitally polished US South, in which I don’t believe. It exists, naturally. And we all belong to it, all of us reading this piece online. But I have no faith in that world, and it disgusts me. The Killer goes on the run after accidentally shooting a female dominatrix (boom: fear of sex), goes on his quest for revenge after his girlfriend has been beaten to a pulp mercilessly (boom: fear of the brown Other, part 1), leaves a trail of insignificant bodies in his trail, including caking the brains of a stuttering, pleading, wince-inducing Dominican taxi driver on his dashboard (boom: fear of the brown Other, part 2), time and again flamboyantly fails to fulfill each of his self-mandated, faux-Bressonian, Notes on the Art of Killing (boom: the all-pervasive irony of our times), and ultimately succeeds in the most anticlimactic finale in recent Hollywood memory. All the while, the Killer listens to the terminally-depression-inducing Smiths to center his nonsensical Art of Killing; it’s a good bit for about two scenes, which is then repeated and padded out to the entire length of the picture. Near the end, when he’s still listening to Meat is Murder and “This Charming Man” and it’s been proven time and again that listening to pop music to help focus on a job doesn’t work, the gag becomes funny again.

To escape thinking about The Killer, a glum and unsurprising work, I escape to a Paris of David Fincher—not the Paris of The Killer, but a retrospective on the director at the Cinémathèque Française. I watch and rewatch David Fincher films: very solid, dutiful work. Again, no real surprises: Gone Girl is the same crazy-lurid pitch-dark screwball comedy, Zodiac is all three films of Alan J. Pakula’s paranoid trilogy rolled into one and updated for the queasy 21st-century early-aughts, The Social Network shows how we all got here. No new thrills under the sun.

The Family Jewels (Jerry Lewis, 1965).

But a week later, the Cinémathèque started another retrospective. It was a massive series dedicated to an auteur who, on first glance, has absolutely nothing to do, tonally or formally, with Fincher. But all the sting of modern life that Killer cruelly eroded was, in the span of two weekends, miraculously restored. And the guffaws produced were not diminished by its auteur’s willful stupidity, crude mise-en-scène, and nasty tendency to extend the gag past the point of hilarity. It was messy, but it was freeing. The director, as you may guess, was Jerry Lewis.

It was the first Jerry Lewis retrospective at the Cinémathèque since the mid-1960s, and of course its most comprehensive one to date, since it included Jerry’s patchy, lugubrious, maddening 1980s diptych, the gloriously incompetent Hardly Working (1980) and the simply glorious Smorgasbord (1982). And binging them over a rainy Paris weekend, I saw how apt it was to hold Lewis and Fincher in dialectical dialogue. The gags that Fincher makes out of the Smiths and the Killer’s repetitious travel reminded me of Lewis’s bread-and-butter: the painfully unfunny made grimly funny after it keeps getting repeated and extended over and over again. Overexposing and dwelling in a mad loop, in order to reveal something terrifying about modernity: a terror converted into nervous laughter. Lewis, too, is a perfectionist like Fincher. But Lewis’s frames inevitably have more spillover, he doesn’t signal his meticulousness like a Kubrick or a Fincher. The problem for Lewis is how to best distribute the sensibility from an individual—an idiot, a funny-man, an incompetent—into the greater world, so that nothing we see reminds us of an existence outside of the man-child. In Lewis’s world, the child is father to the man, and our gaffes say more about us than our triumphs. Jerry’s films show how we live: there’s no objectivity, all is in maddening flux. What we see as communal relation begins with the individual ego—whether of Jerry’s naïve man-child or Fincher’s solipsistic, arrogant Killer. Today, thanks to the rectangles in our pockets, before our eyes, that ego is burning to a crisp.

The Killer, too, is a series of loose unconnected sketches in the vein of Lewis’s The Family Jewels (1965) or The Patsy (1964). Each sketch—Tilda Swinton as a proper enemy hit person, the stuttering Dominican, a roided-up Florida bodybuilder who fights Fassbender in a gruelingly drawn-out fight scene à la Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966)—provides a tiny glimpse into the bureaucratic digital world in which even hitmen are hopelessly enmeshed. We see a line of perfect workers, purposely kept separate; when they’re unnaturally drawn together, as Fincher and Lewis do in their works, we can only notice the bad shape of the world’s structure, its garish awkward bends.

What should we watch, then? Movies of the past that speak to a time which can no longer be but has eerie resemblances to how we got here, or movies that exist in the static, tensionless present of aggressive cynicism like The Killer? Perhaps it is false to set up a binary between such choices. No room is left for a third option: the space of the oneiric, a hope, a something. Maybe it starts with shutting out the world, listening to “Girlfriend in a Coma, and daydreaming. Or better yet: turning off the Spotify altogether.

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