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GLEN WELDON, HOST:
The new movie "The Killer" is a stylish thriller from director David Fincher and follows Michael Fassbender as an international hitman. When a hit goes wrong, Fassbender's unnamed killer's very detached and methodical life falls apart. He finds himself throwing his every bedrock professional principle out the window as he sets out on a deeply personal path of revenge. I'm Glen Weldon, and today, we're talking about "The Killer" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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WELDON: Joining me today is NPR political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben. Welcome back, Danielle.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Yes. Really happy to be here.
WELDON: Also with us is NPR producer Marc Rivers. Hey, Marc, good to have you.
MARC RIVERS, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me.
WELDON: In "The Killer," Michael Fassbender plays an extremely patient, stoic and ruthlessly efficient assassin for hire who spends much of the film sharing his thoughts about his methods and his professional ethics with the viewer in voiceover.
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MICHAEL FASSBENDER: (As The Killer) Stick to the plan. Anticipate. Don't improvise.
WELDON: But when a hit in Paris goes badly wrong, he finds himself - and his girlfriend - targeted by person or persons unknown. He sets off to track down the people who are targeting him, and his quest for a very personal and unprofessional vengeance leaves him open for the first time to feelings of anger, confusion and even - to his horror - empathy. "The Killer" is directed by David Fincher with a screenplay written by Andrew Kevin Walker. He also wrote the Fincher film "Se7en." It is currently streaming on Netflix. Danielle, kick us off. What do you make of "The Killer"?
KURTZLEBEN: I really enjoyed it. I mean, I love David Fincher, and this is not my favorite David Fincher movie, but then again, that's like saying it's not a home run. It's still a triple. It's a great movie. I love a thriller. I love a caper, which this kind of ends up being, a sort of revenge caper. I love an assassin movie, and I feel like I've kind of boiled this down to two big reasons why I liked it. One is that it's an unusual assassin movie. This is not "John Wick" or "Kill Bill." Our killer in this movie, who remains nameless, he's not cool. He's not perfect at this. In fact, like, the movie starts off with him screwing up, and things keep going wrong for him. And you keep wondering, yeah, he's good at his job, but how good is he? He keeps nodding off. I kept wondering, like, shouldn't you stay awake better, man? But also, he listens to mopey The Smiths while he's shooting people. The first 10 minutes, I was damn close to shutting off the movie 'cause I was like, this guy is insufferable. This voiceover is obnoxious.
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FASSBENDER: (As The Killer) The real problems arise in the days, hours and minutes leading up to the task and the minutes, hours, and days after. It all comes down to preparation.
KURTZLEBEN: Trust me. Stick with it. It gets better. But the other reason I liked it, quickly, is because this movie captures a very specific panic well, which is that panic you feel when you're good at something and then you screw it up anyway. Like, you can really feel his terror. You feel him scrambling to fix his mistake. And as an anxious person, I was like, I get it. I totally get it. I was with it from that moment on.
RIVERS: Yeah. I think to your point about, you know, this guy coming up as so insufferable at the beginning, I think your mileage on this movie will depend a lot on how quickly you're keyed into that Fincher is kind of making a comedy. This guy at the center of this, as you listen to his monologue, which is essentially constant throughout the movie, the words are not matching the accidents, not matching what he's actually doing. And you realize that this guy is actually kind of - he's kind of lying to himself to kind of get through each day. I came out of this movie thinking, you know, this was an unabashedly unimportant movie coming after his last movie, "Mank," which, you know, is a story of old Hollywood and larger-than-life Hollywood figures like Orson Welles, Louis B. Mayer. And here we have this kind of, like, lean-and-mean take on a genre whose cobwebs have cobwebs at this point. And so at this point, it's about what do I do within this genre?
And I think what he does is kind of fascinating because it's not only this comical element. He's presenting through this really ordinary, kind of basic bro. You know, as Danielle said, he listens to the Smiths. He has the same taste in music as Joseph Gordon-Levitt from "(500) Days Of Summer," you know? This character is part of the gig economy, and he's awash in brands. We start out the movie. He's in an abandoned WeWork. He uses Amazon. He uses Postmates. This is very much a killer of our times. And I just found that very, like, funny and interesting, but I don't think it's top-tier Fincher. I think for a guy who's kind of known for these macabre and, you know, twisting set pieces and for being such a great conjurer of dread, I felt like this was more a movie where he was coasting. He can do this movie in his sleep. And there were times where I felt like he was doing it in his sleep. But there's more there than what the surface suggests.
WELDON: OK, 'cause you mentioned, Marc, the cobwebs on cobwebs of this particular thriller genre. Let's talk about the cobwebs. I sat through this film thinking, man, the dream of the '80s is alive in this movie. This is a real throwback. I mean, the plot of this movie is a Schwarzenegger film, and the '80s version of it would have, you know, more bodies piling up and more catchphrases right before he pulled the trigger. And by the way, just as a screenwriting note, when it's unclear to the viewer whether the woman you fed into your plot's sausage grinder to drive the hero into action is the girlfriend, the wife, the sister, the housekeeper - when we can't tell, that's a - that was a warning sign to me. And that moment where she's there, like, I didn't say anything and you'd be proud of me - I hated everything about that, but I think I was supposed to.
In terms of what's new here, that's what I kept coming back to. And this movie sets out to force this kind of romantic, old-school notion of a jet-setting international assassin who can blend in and disappear - I mean, as you mentioned, Marc, this is the world of CCTV cameras and tracking technology and key fobs and whatnot. So this is a process movie, and it's the methodology stuff that I dug - you know, how boring a stakeout is, how you'd get access to a secure building. I loved all that, but it did seem to me - and you kind of touched on this, Marc - it seemed to me like that's the only thing new here. But is that fair to ask because this is a genre picture? Should I just let genre be genre? What do you think?
RIVERS: Yeah, you know, I mean, I think a movie like this, it's not about - Ebert has that classic line. It's not what it's about. It's how it's about, right? So it's a matter of what you do within the genre, like, how he's kind of coloring within the lines. I think it's a really potent choice to kind of make this killer this kind of freelance contractor, this kind of - he could be a financial consultant if we just took away all the murder and the killings, you know, the way he's constantly on the road. I thought of George Clooney's character in "Up In The Air." You know, it's - he's never - you never really see him at home. It's a movie of transience. And what I appreciate about Fincher in comparison to some of his contemporaries, like Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, is this movie is firmly in the present, and this movie could not take place in any other period but now.
RIVERS: Only now could an assassin use Postmates to track his quarry or whatever. But it does make me think, you know, to what end, like, if there's something I think inherently disposable about a genre that has seen this much wear and tear? I wonder how much, like, return value this movie is going to have. And it doesn't feel necessarily as substantial as, say, "Zodiac" or "The Social Network"...
RIVERS: ...Which I think those have the benefit of, like, really rich scripts too.
KURTZLEBEN: Well, what is, you know?
RIVERS: Yeah, yeah, sure, sure, sure. They're high bars.
RIVERS: We kind of have to judge him from his own bar that he's set.
KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. No, I mean, I hear what you guys are saying, but I - it sounds like I am the unabashed "The Killer" cheerleader on this call, which is funny 'cause when I first started watching it, like I said, I thought, oh, I don't know if I'm going to like this. It's a very - you really have to be patient with this movie and wait for it to take off. But to your point, Glen, when you were talking about how you can't tell if that woman he visits in the hospital - if that's his girlfriend, to me, I felt, oh, that's by design. I mean, first of all, David Fincher is known for being methodical. Like, you have to assume, especially with this guy, that every choice is made for a very specific reason. And what you really notice the more you watch it - or what I noticed, the more I watch it, is the lack of pleasure in this man's life. Like, he talks at the start about getting cheap, efficient protein at McDonald's.
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FASSBENDER: (As The Killer) There are 1,500 McDonald's in France, a good enough place to grab 10 grams of protein for a euro, alongside the other 46 million they serve each week.
KURTZLEBEN: And then there's a scene where he's in a car - I'm going to remember this forever - where he eats a hard-boiled egg out of one of those flimsy little plastic packages...
RIVERS: Oh, yeah.
KURTZLEBEN: ...You get at a gas station and then chases it with gas station coffee. And I was like the rankness of this man's stomach has got to be - I mean, this guy is not enjoying anything. And so the fact that you couldn't tell if that was his girlfriend, to me, it was like, this guy has so much difficulty connecting, enjoying, feeling, and it's thrown into so much relief so intentionally when, towards the end of the movie, he meets Tilda Swinton, who is this character who takes joy in fancy whisky, fancy food.
Like, to me, this movie is very much a comparison to "Se7en" because it has the same screenwriter as "Se7en" - right? - Andrew Kevin Walker. And what these two movies are doing is using killing, this extreme thing, to get at big questions to me. Like, "Se7en" is about how do you deal with evil in the world? How do you react to it? To me, this movie is about how do you deal with your own mistakes, and also, why do you do what you do? Why do you do the job you do? This guy has no answer, and he meets other people who do have clear answers. They have families. They like good food. This guy just doesn't know who he is. That's what I loved about it. It's kind of a midlife crisis movie, in a certain way.
RIVERS: I think there's a kind of, like, self-probing element to this movie that was not necessarily there with "Se7en." It's like, can a person function like this in the world? And, like, what does that do to you? And I find that a little more resonant than Andrew Kevin Walker and Fincher's last collaboration, which was more entertaining, but I think ultimately, a little too lurid and a little too nihilistic.
KURTZLEBEN: It was a little dark.
RIVERS: It's a tad dark, you might say. It was not "Driving Miss Daisy." It's the kind of movie you make when you're not chasing awards, you know, and you're only now just, like, dealing with your own kind of, like, sense of, like, worth, almost. There are things to unpack here that I think you might miss if you're just at home watching it and, like, looking at your phone and then looking at it, as well.
KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. It's not a looking at your phone movie. I feel like that's very, very clear. You can miss so much in this.
WELDON: Right. And a lot of critics have picked up on what you picked up on, Marc, the critical reaction of this movie, see, he's owning his obsessiveness.
WELDON: And this is a story about a person whose strict discipline and inflexibility utterly fails him. This is a movie about craft by a craftsperson that explores the limits of craft. And that's where the comedy comes in. You know, we talk about this voiceover, and it is omnipresent, especially in the first half hour or so. And, man, voiceover is tricky because if it's there just to reiterate what we're already seeing, it can feel like it's being used to paper over some weakness in characterization or plot. It feels like something that's added in post. Here, I don't think it did, because it exists to show us the daylight, as you both mentioned, between what his stated principles are and what he ends up doing in front of our eyes.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I guess I am begging (crying).
FASSBENDER: (As The Killer) Empathy is weakness. Weakness is vulnerability.
RIVERS: It's like running in counterpoint to what's happening.
KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. He's an unreliable narrator.
KURTZLEBEN: I want to talk about the fight scene...
KURTZLEBEN: ...Because that fight scene, to me, was one of my favorite ones in recent memory because, like, look, I'm a "Mission Impossible" freak. I will watch all sorts of thrillers, but, like, that one, it was visceral. It was - Michael Fassbender, like, he takes a few - more than a few punches. It's funny at moments when he reaches for a weapon and doesn't get what he thinks he's going to.
RIVERS: It's like a cheese grater. Yeah.
KURTZLEBEN: Yes. Oh, and the look on his face was perfect. What I love is just, like, yes, this movie is, in many ways, a comedy or a dramedy, whatever you want to call it, a thrilleredy (ph), but also, like, when it is firing on all cylinders, it still functions as a thriller. I loved that scene. It was so skillful.
RIVERS: I mean, it is an unexpectedly funny movie. Like, you go to Fincher for the dread, you go to Fincher for the kind of - almost kind of for the meanness. You know, he likes to kind of play...
RIVERS: ...Games with his characters. So, you know, and his characters often meet these, like, awful fates. But here, there's just such a satirical element to a lot of it, too, where if there is a highlight to the movie, that is probably the highlight.
KURTZLEBEN: That and Tilda...
KURTZLEBEN: ...But Tilda is a highlight of everything she's in.
RIVERS: Tilda is always a highlight.
WELDON: Yeah. I mean, Tilda makes anything better. I think that's just a general rule. Well, we want to know what you think about "The Killer." Find us at facebook.com/pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. Danielle Kurtzleben and Marc Rivers, thank you so much for being here.
KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. Thank you.
RIVERS: My pleasure.
WELDON: This episode was produced by Rommel Wood and Hafsa Fathima and edited by Mike Katzif. Our supervising producer is Jessica Reedy, and Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all tomorrow.
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