Why doesn't the assassin in "The Killer" attract me?


(Note: The issue mentioned in the article is looked at from the viewpoint of the story itself and how it emotionally resonates with the audience, as I see it as a commercial film. However, if we view it as an auteur film and interpret it as a deliberate departure from tradition by the director, I think that is also a valid perspective - for more in-depth analysis, check out ChillJane's article "The Killer of 2023 Is Just an Ordinary Worker with a Sense of Nothingness".)

David Fincher's "The Killer" has been released on streaming platforms, and it turned out worse than what I had predicted in another article about the film's trailer. It just does not grab my attention at all.

In terms of visual and audio, Fincher has not missed the mark yet; the problem lies with the story, or more precisely, the characterization of the assassin played by Michael Fassbender. It is safe to say that they missed the mark on this aspect.

To understand the problem, let's look at successful assassins. Immediately, characters like Léon from "Léon: The Professional" and Tangerine and Lemon from "Bullet Train" come to mind.

Léon impresses me deeply with his memorable entrance. Wearing black sunglasses and a black coat, his face is obscured in close-ups, as he accepts contract killings with an emotionless tone. He uses corpses as distractions and displays precise and unwavering marksmanship. He is a professional assassin. But when he steps out of his role as a killer, he is just an ordinary civilian. He habitually buys the same brand of milk, cares for his neighbor's daughter, tends to his plants, and hunches over while doing housework. He wears a white undershirt, black suspenders and black cardigan to sleep, resembling an ordinary middle-aged man who lives alone.

"Léon: The Professional

Tangerine and Lemon, a terrifying assassin brother duo, kill dozens of people without batting an eyelid, yet feel remorse for killing the wrong targets. Lemon even gets shot while trying to identify the good among the bad. Despite being killers, they can tell right from wrong. The idea to stand up for justice, and know who deserves to die and who does not came from Lemon's hobby: watching "Thomas the Tank Engine," so all his conversations revolve around it. Tangerine never listens to him seriously, and they will bicker and tease each other. But deep down, they care a lot about each other.

Bullet Train
Bullet Train

Did you notice? What makes them appealing are the ordinary emotions behind their extraordinary identities.

Assassins are distant from our everyday lives. Particularly, it is mainly because their work is secretive and illegal and contradicts with what is right to the society. They are often portrayed as individuals who are highly trained, emotionless, calm, clever and can survive in extreme environments. But what makes them relatable is the infusion of ordinary emotions in their character design. Take Léon, for example, who is kind and has various hobbies; Lemon who has a childlike love for "Thomas the Tank Engine," or Tangerine who is loyal to his brother. By introducing these ordinary emotions, it creates a strong contrast to their assassin image, quickly bridging the gap between them and the audience and allowing the audience to empathize with them.

"The Killer" does not satisfy me because it does not evoke a sense of relatability. Now, let's delve into a more detailed analysis.

First, let's talk about The Killer’s entrance. He sits alone in an empty house and silently observes his target. Describing the act of killing, he says "It's amazing how physically exhausting it can be to do nothing." He views the long wait before the killing as boring, which gives me the impression of him as a professional, cool, and confident killer. After performing lines and lines of seemingly professional monologues and long periods of waiting patiently, he finally takes action and makes a mistake. When this occurs, his image in my mind changes to an amateur, cold, and arrogant killer. This is just the first chapter of the film, and his image continues to fluctuate throughout the following six chapters.

The Killer

In the second chapter, his coldness becomes uncertain to me. After returning home (which also reflects his unprofessionalism) and finding out that his girlfriend has been attacked, he decides to seek revenge for her. His image changes again to an amateur, empathetic, and arrogant killer. It is worth mentioning that he shows a look of commiseration when his girlfriend says she kept his secret, "No matter what they did, I didn't tell them anything, not about you." This is the only emotional moment in the entire film, but it is far from granting me access into his inner world.

The Killer

The film then follows his path of revenge. During this process, The Killer is sometimes cruel yet sometimes empathetic; sometimes he appears professional, yet sometimes amateurish. Due to such inconsistencies, the line that he says before taking action every time, "Stick to the plan," sometimes sounds cool, yet sometimes laughable. Overall, my image of him constantly oscillates between confidence and arrogance.

Professionalism and amateurism, as well as confidence and arrogance, are not emotions. They cannot create a sense of relatability; empathy, although it can be considered an emotion, is portrayed too vaguely in the film. It is developed randomly and without logic—for example, the innocent taxi driver is killed but the final "client" is spared. This chaotic development of empathy also fails to allow me to relate The Killer to an ordinary person.

Of course, there are some extraordinary killers that leave a lasting impression on me, like Chigurh, who makes people feel suffocated throughout in "No Country for Old Men," Jack, who kills with a small knife in "Kill Zone," and the expressionless T-1000 in "Terminator 2." They are all downright ruthless. But even though they lack the emotions of ordinary people, their opponents and other characters are regular folks, and these movies depict their emotions vividly. These killers unleash their frenzy upon ordinary people whom the audience has already formed a connection with, evoking anger and fear in audience to make them remember the killers vividly.

Unfortunately, the victims of the killings are not depicted in "The Killer." Each of them is given a very brief introduction, as though they are disposable pawns. I simply feel numbness watching these faceless individuals being killed one by one by emotionless assassins.

However, this numbness may have been intentionally crafted by Fincher. Because in the assassin's monologue, there is a line that goes, "The worldwide population is approximately 7.8 billion...Nothing I've done will make any dent in these metrics." Perhaps Fincher wanted to showcase how insignificant these individuals are to a massive population. And I do indeed feel it from the motiveless killers and victims who are easily snuffed out like video game NPCs.

So, what comes next? When confronted with the problem of individuals in modern society feeling a lack of meaning in life, what should we do? Should we courageously seek answers from society or embark on a journey of self-discovery and seeking inner harmony?

Unfortunately, "The Killer" does not provide any additional insight. It seems that there is no way out, which could be the dilemma that Fincher is currently confronting.

Perhaps, as described by Byung-Chul Han in "The Burnout Society," in the past, people cared about how to have a good life, which also included living together harmoniously. Nowadays, people only think about how to survive. Everyone falls into their own individual cage, which is the challenge that the era imposes on humanity. We may be confused and struggle, but in the end, we will not end up like the protagonist in "The Killer," who messes things up, destroys everything, and then immerses himself in his seemingly peaceful remaining years while going through the motions in life.

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