By David Ryan.
The Killer argues that no matter how much security wealth buys or the number of datalocks that conglomerates build, these defenses can be poked and usurped by determined criminals. Conversely, no matter how clandestine criminal cells are organized, they can be destroyed, particularly from within.”
David Fincher’s The Killer (stylized as The K_.ller) opens with an assassin patiently waiting for his target to appear in his carefully studied kill zone. As he sits in a seemingly abandoned WeWork office across from his mark’s Parisian apartment, we understand that we are in a surveillance economy, one where the killer functions as the narrator, and the audience is asked to monitor the economics of his behavior while measuring the effectiveness of his internally focused (but audience-directed) narration. From these calm, quiet, early scenes, we understand that the assassin must piece together a well-ordered task environment out of the messy, ill-structured variables that constitute a public hit.
In this economy of thought and action, the assassin schemes his exit strategy, recites his interior monologue, and studies the behavior of the people within his field of view—while patiently waiting for his victim to arrive. These opening scenes accomplish a few practical things. First, they allow us to engage the narrator to see what he is thinking and study how his narration (or spoken cognition) frames his behavior. Second, the film restricts us to his point of view, where we see him standing in front of an open window (framed like a display or screen), using his sniper’s scope (as a director would use a viewfinder) to observe the people in the neighborhood. What is important is that we understand that his strategic thinking and risk calculations are framed by a technician’s hyper-affinity for process and procedure.
Here, our professional killer works in isolation but constructs his agency in a highly socialized world populated by people who are surveilled by government and commercial organizations that monitor their choices and behaviors. The killer understands how to contextualize his criminality in this economy, so he crafts numerous fake identities to navigate the touchpoints; buys common items to use in his crimes; stores his criminal scaffolding in many places; and travels internationally in planes, trains and automobiles. For the story, we are asked to measure the impact of the controlled and uncontrolled variables we see, the ones that compose his well-made plans but also influence his tactical if not ethical deviations.
On the evening of the fifth day of surveillance, the wealthy target (Endre Hules) enters the intended kill zone, and the killer (Michael Fassbender) scopes his movements amid his spacious apartment, accompanied by his staff, security, and Parisian liaison. Using his sniper’s scope, the assassin centers his target while he moves among the open spaces and obstructions, and as the moment opens, he pulls the trigger—striking the dominatrix (Monique Ganderton) by accident—and missing his target. Quickly, another kill moment opens through some sheer drapes, but the sniper dissembles his weapon and makes his exit. This priority (of leaving before the job is done) seems odd for someone who repeats to himself: “Stick to the plan. Anticipate, don’t improvise.”
We watch the killer hurriedly elude his French pursuers and retreat to his home in the Dominican Republic. Once there, he realizes his mistakes have created collateral damage for the woman about whom he cares deeply. After ensuring her safe hospitalization, he works through a list of people to get to the man who hired him in order to negotiate a resolution. This part of the story occupies the film’s many chapters, for we are asked to observe how a willfully marginalized yet successful contract killer composes his professional life, gathers information, and negotiates his way out of the problems he has created.
Without a doubt, the killer’s failures have scaled the variables he must resolve. He has to kill his own contractors (Charles Parnell and Kerry O’Malley) to get the identifying information on the pair who harmed his Dominican love interest (Sophie Charlotte). He does track and kill them (Sala Baker and Tilda Swinton), but once he reaches the client (Arliss Howard), a wealthy corporate type, he must expose himself in order to negotiate a forced understanding by threatening him with future violence.
Thematically, the dominant patterns in the story are clear, one where the characters are paired (two clean-up contractors, a trade lawyer and his assistant, the wealthy rivals, and, yes, even two menacing canines) not to create easy contrasts but to mirror the relationship between the killer-as-narrator and we in the viewing audience. This duality nicely supports other scenes, such as relating old-fashioned paper-based record keeping to digitized catalogs, both of which require interpretive skills to uncover more useful information. There is also the story-within-the story, one where the Swinton character’s dinner table conversation (with the killer) yields explanations as to what happened to his love interest and why.
the film touches on how organizations that monetize the behavior and choices of their consumers, including Amazon (explicitly) and Netflix (implicitly), directly create the surveillance economy that maps the behaviorism of people in order to understand their cognitive biases.”
More broadly, the film touches on how organizations that monetize the behavior and choices of their consumers, including Amazon (explicitly) and Netflix (implicitly), directly create the surveillance economy that maps the behaviorism of people in order to understand their cognitive biases. These biases do help organizations with their predictive analytics, and it helps our killer economize his choices, but such biases also (more importantly) permit us different ways to measure his behavior and track his logical deviations as he works from objective to objective to meet his overall goal of surviving his professional failures.
Most importantly, Fincher and writers Alexis Nolent, Luc Jacamon, and Andrew Kevin Walker want us to understand how the killer’s biases relate to his fictionalized identity traits. For example, what makes the killer hard to detect are his disguises, both the three-dimensional facade he dons as a German (and unstated American) tourist, and the two-dimensional digital identities he employs at every technological funnel. Oddly, though he routinely listens to The Smiths more than he watches television, he uses the names of well-known sitcom characters (Felix Unger, Archibald Bunker, Sam Malone, etc., you get the idea) on his passports and credit cards (rather than the names of the band members) to conceal his movements.
These references work to reinforce the thematic allusions of how fiction references fiction while emphasizing how fictionalized the killer’s life needs to be in order survive and engage in criminal acts that would cost him his freedom, if not his life. These referential themes help illustrate the closed world in which the killer inhabits, one where he cites his maxims again and again, as if it were a rerun or procedural documentation that traps him into finite but focused choices and sequences.
As a director, Fincher works to show the kinetic choices of his protagonists, and such movements are constrained and often dictated by the controlled micro-economies of the environments in which his characters labor (Panic Room, The Game, Fight Club). But what is also important is the killer’s microeconomy of expression, many of which seem more starkly definitional than ironic (“I’m not exceptional”). When he makes such statements, particularly this one, we are meant to believe him because he often makes mistakes, and we suspect that Fincher and his writers want us to think that he will eventually get caught. Why? A good detective could track his fictive data patterns with the right methodology; in addition, though we never see a Ring camera in sight of the three residences in which he confronts victims, he does walk in front of more than a few CCTVs. In addition, his trove of fake IDs contains his picture— which does get scanned in one scene. No doubt, face tracking technology would help in capturing him, especially after he slays the Swinton character behind the restaurant where he is seen dining with her.
Fincher’s reputation for being a deft technician is well-earned, but there are odd choices that permeate the film. In the opening scenes, the killer works in front of his window, assembling his weapon at night with the light on. Because he is positioned above most of his neighbors, he is able to spy on them as they move about their lighted apartments, so, in some sense, they should be able to see him, too, especially when standing in front of his window peering through his scope (one older man does spot him). This directorial choice is compounded later when the killer lingers for far too long by a barking dog—who is then called away by the killer’s intended victim.
These temporal and spatial errors are compounded by the killer’s miscalculations. For instance, we get some insight into his past, particularly about the trade lawyer he kills who used to be his professor, and as the killer estimates how long the lawyer will live after being wounded, the film emphasizes his predictive error (the lawyer dies sooner than expected). Certainly, these problems don’t seem to register too much in his own thinking, but in a world that has high tech airport surveillance and possesses his fictive data with his real imagery, the killer may end up facing more problems down the line, as the Swinton character warns before he kills her.
Fincher works to show the kinetic choices of his protagonists, and such movements are constrained and often dictated by the controlled micro-economies of the environments in which his characters labor….”
There are other odds and ends the film wants us to ponder. One point the film makes is that the killer is a great observer, an impeccable planner, and astute traveler; however, he does not seem to possess an understanding of the color-coded taxi companies near his home. In addition, though he seems to embrace the mantra “trust no one” more than others, this one seems to directly contradict his relationship with the woman with whom he lives—though he does keep certain aspects of his identity buried in his yard. And what of the man with the blue striped socks who may or may not be trailing him? Hard to say. However, when the killer rents a Hertz car to hunt the Floridian contractor, the film makes a point that the killer’s vehicle is being tracked via GPS, and parking adjacent to the victim’s house will only add to a geofencing warrant down the line.
Clearly, these are not necessarily deficiencies of the story; rather, they point more toward the controlled and uncontrolled variables that appear as deviations in the killer’s calculations, ones that compose his growing error rate, and Fincher’s choices suggest that these problems not only compromise his welfare but will impact the one person about whom he cares the most.
Otherwise, the story elements that make Fincher’s films interesting are his focus on illustrating worlds that are designed to meet the needs of productive people, those who work, live their lives, but encounter unusual problems—problems created by figures who inhabit self-marginalized spheres and whose actions severely impact the lives of others (Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac). In his films, when ordinary people engage wicked problems, many of them emerge from their highly socialized conflicts more individualized—often diminished and even seemingly alone (Detective Mills in Se7en and Robert Graysmith in Zodiac).
Fincher’s films often explore themes of security and violence, and The Killer argues that no matter how much security wealth buys or the number of datalocks that conglomerates build, these defenses can be poked and usurped by determined criminals. Conversely, no matter how clandestine criminal cells are organized, they can be destroyed, particularly from within. More interestingly, the film dabbles with issues of wealth, health and vulnerability, especially regarding how wealth and its support systems can be coerced by violent threats and manipulated by violence itself.
The film argues that there are factors that work to secure wealth in its privileged place, and violence plays some role in this calculation. For example, in the end, the wealthy Parisian and his corporate Chicago rival survive the killer’s separate engagements. Meanwhile, by the time the killer moves his North American assets to the Caribbean (under the name of George Jefferson) prior to threatening the Chicago Client, we are acutely aware that the working class players and middle manager types have all met violent ends. The killer, much like the corporate Client, has prioritized his self-interest above others, and the film suggests that the problem of how selfish-wealth remains entrenched in privilege is because they victimize their subordinates with their economic and moral choices.
This position, in the eyes of the killer, is a virtue that he invites his audience to consider embracing. This point begs the question: is this view a character flaw or the product of organizational values that continually objectify people by monetizing their behavior and biases? In essence, they are all marks to be exploited. The Killer is pretty clear that corporate killing is not the norm, but it may be a normalized trait among the wealthy who routinely engage in corruption as a personal and organizational value.
The film offers a long list of character problems for the killer, but, by the end, we understand two things: first, the killer destroys the criminal network that provided (for the most part) direct benefits to him; second, we briefly glimpse exchanges in the killer’s life where he seems to operate under a more virtuous set of rules, ones that privilege personal, consensual, day-to-day exchanges without the lethal griminess of crime and criminality (those things are buried in his yard). We see these worlds intersect, and the killer destroys the former to recover the latter. However, we also understand the killer’s world is altogether a dim one because there is enough evidence out there for a forensic data scientist to red flag that would lead to his world’s closure.
David Ryan is Academic Director and Faculty Chair of the Master of Arts in Professional Communication at the University of San Francisco. He’s published widely on rhetoric and film studies and is the co-editor of David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation (FDU Press, 2022).