With his latest thriller, Fincher further develops his practice of digitally molding the real world in his own image.
n chapter one of The Killer (2023), Michael Fassbender sits in a Paris WeWork office, rented as the base of operations for his nameless hitman’s latest job. While waiting for the target, pigeons fly past, their wings loudly breaking his forced concentration. The odds they entered the frame at a serendipitous moment are low, and there’s no reason to pay for a bird wrangler given the advanced state of CG. Once you see them, they’re impossible to unsee as they follow Fassbender’s character from city to city, segment to segment. It’s clear that they must be a digitally created motif, a fresh reminder of David Fincher’s unwillingness to let the real world preclude his very precise vision.
Initial responses to The Killer included many variants on “minor Fincher,” which raises an obvious question: what’s the perceptible gap between a major and minor David Fincher film? Surely it’s not a question of craft; second for second, Fincher’s films have to be in the top 0.5% of technically-worked-over products. Control, famously, is his thing, to the extent that even The Killer’s seemingly handheld shots were, in fact, static shots made shaky to a exact degree in post. “Minor,” then, refers to the ostensible worthiness of the material: why all this effort to so little end, i.e., the umpteenth variant on “hitman cleans up after a job gone wrong”? When you’ve begun your directing career coming up with compelling images for lower-tier Rick Springfield singles everything after is, presumably, a breeze to elevate. Still, that doesn’t answer the “why bother” question.
In the initial stretch of his career, from music-video whiz kid to the finely rendered feature-length morbidity of Alien3 (1992) and Seven (1995), it was popular to conceive of Fincher as a kind of elevated sadist specializing in gruesome, death-bound setpieces. That characterization is hard to reconcile with the filmmaker of The Social Network (2010), or even the one behind his third and fourth features: The Game (1997) is a thriller with not a single moment of gore, let alone a death, while Fight Club (1999), though styled upon release as a provocation, is focused on comedy, not sadism. And while suspense is a recurring element in Fincher’s filmography, it’s hardly dominant, despite persistent Hitchcock comparisons. While some obvious reasons for the connection arise—the meticulously worked out precision of both directors’ work, a comically overstated disregard for actors—there’s no true visual affinity between the two and how they arrive at their respective images also differs; for starters, Hitchcock storyboarded, while Fincher used to but no longer does.
A more meaningful similarity comes in their counterintuitively amiable interviews. Hitchcock often told his interlocutors what they wanted to hear, confirming their theories in inconsistent ways depending on who was asking what. Likewise, Fincher’s famously hard to please on set but almost shockingly accommodating in conversation with the press. Asked by The Guardian’s Steve Rose if The Killer was, by virtue of being about a detail-fixated control freak, in any way a self-portrait, Fincher obliged: “There are certain parallels […] It’s very technical. It’s about getting the shot […] I think it’s always interesting to watch somebody use their tools with great precision.” Compare that answer with DP Erik Messerschmidt’s unambiguous response when The Film Stage’s Nick Newman asked if this parallel was ever discussed with Fincher: “No, it wasn’t.”
It’s difficult to believe there isn’t at least a temperamental similarity between Fincher and his protagonist even if any larger metaphorical comparison breaks down, partly because, like Hitchcock, Fincher doesn’t write, though he works closely with his writers to beat out many rewrites to his satisfaction. Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker has said Fincher first pitched this graphic novel adaptation to him in 2008, complete with structure, and there’s surely a minor joke baked in about a self-portrait of a director whose bloodlust has been overstated presenting himself as “The Killer.” Another in-joke about his filmography: the hitman’s all-Smiths playlist is disrupted only once, when Fassbender returns to his home to find it’s been broken into, a violation signaled by the unwelcome sound of a different band (Portishead’s “Glory Box”) blasting from inside. This is a parodic variation on Michael Douglas in The Game returning to his San Francisco mansion to discover it’s been invaded and the perpetrators have left Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” blaring.
Beyond Hitchcock, a more apposite reference point is Robert Zemeckis—another technically ferociously gifted director, to the point where he often seeks out projects for the primary purpose of test-driving new technology. Zemeckis’s first two features—I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) and Used Cars (1980), co-written with Bob Gale—presented unambiguously satirical/condemnatory portraits of American society as rapacious and stupid in equal, intertwined measure. But his subsequent films as a director working from other writers’ scripts registers an opacity of thematic intent, which he refuses to discuss (let alone admits to having any) in interviews. His investigations into the possibilities of motion-capture animation have repeatedly attempted to cross into the uncanny valley but mostly creeped audiences out. The experiments of The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007), A Christmas Carol (2009) and The Walk (2015) haven’t been continued or explored by anyone else and seem destined to continue to live in their own cul-de-sac.
Meanwhile, Fincher has actually crossed into the uncanny valley. It would be valid to classify his work as essentially a live-action/animation hybrid, except with him you really can’t see the seams. He makes this clear in the opening scenes of The Killer, which simply observe Fassbender in said Paris WeWork as he does yoga, rests and observes. The chatterbox voiceover might be thought to provide action to something that’s visually static, but these opening images are among the most seductive of Fincher’s career, and they’re constructed out of barely anything but widescreen views of Fassbender—from the side, right above his head, down in front—while he’s in downward dog. This is filmmaking as pure geometry exercise, with Fassbender’s body taking up varying extents of the screen in crisp lines operating against the circles of lens flares under and around him, theoretically from (barely) motivated light sources. While watching the scene, I knew that the odds of all, or even any, of these flares being real—that these images record what happens when you point a bright light at a lens—were minuscule. Surely part or even all are after-the-fact animations, just like the birds.
Theoretically, this should trouble me the same way that AI-generated photos are currently freaking everyone out: Fincher is taking the real world and compulsively animating it into submission indistinguishable from the real thing. In practice, the images are so hypnotic that I don’t care how they’re achieved, and that’s the ultimate meaning of The Killer: to once again demonstrate a strong aesthetic that unconventionally produces beauty, bending previously understood ways of rendering the world to a director’s total vision.
The Killer is available to stream on Netflix.