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There is a moment halfway through David Fincher’s The Killer that pulled the rug out from under my feet. It was just a passing line about a character from a different race and social status, just one little line uttered by Michael Fassbender, the eponymous assassin, that reveals one crucial detail about his character that I was missing yet quietly expecting. We were suddenly facing the reality that this protagonist may not be the best person, and because we don’t know much of him (apart from his obsessive and meticulous nature and love for The Smiths), it comes at us like a slap in the face. Is this man a bigot?

It was at that moment that I knew I was going to love The Killer.

The Killer feels like a return to form for Fincher. I disagreed with most critics on Mank – a perfectly serviceable film about how futile and personal artistic obsession is. Maybe fellow critics took personally the liberties taken by Fincher and his father (who wrote the film) and how much he seemed to enjoy unveiling Hollywood as a place so rotten not even our dearest artists, not even Orson Wells, are immune to its corruptible excess.

And yet even I hoped Fincher would return to the pond he’s more comfortable with – the surgical, hyper-violent world of thrillers. He was partnering again with his Se7en writer, Andrew Kevin Walker, which was reassurance enough that the man was back.

I wasn’t expecting to see Fincher stripping his story of as many character elements as he could, letting the plot drive everything unhindered, discovering what details would shine through.

The story is straightforward. Fassbender plays a contract killer – only named The Killer – whose meticulous attention to detail is necessary to be the best at his job. He controls everything – the beating of his heart, the hours he sleeps, the food he ingests – and yet things can go astray.

After a botched assassination attempt, The Killer needs to go after his clients before they find him. Each chapter is set in a different city and about a different mark; the Killer is a quiet man entertained only by an inner monologue we constantly hear – shallow philosophical meanderings about his system, repeating his mantra “stick to the plan” like he’s Jordan Peterson.

His charm slowly deflates every time he has to perform an action, so much of his true personality shines through. He is relentless, psychotic, a sociopath with no morality. He’s also not a bright man; apart from following his rules, he only finds respite listening to The Smiths. We never see him reading or watching anything; his self-imposed method guides his life.

Later, he meets with another contract killer, The Expert (Tilda Swinton), who goes on her own philosophical rant – a deep dive into the ruthless nature of their world. Our protagonist says nothing during that time, and I suspect it was because he has nothing to say. When faced with someone who offered an interesting perspective, he has nothing to add.

Fincher composes each shot with his obsessive methodology, but he finds a lot of depth in his images. I read some critics accusing the film of being shallow, and I suspect they are confusing the protagonist’s frivolity with Fincher and Walker’s interest in portrayal. The Killer is a film about a lonely person who does not realise he’s lonely.

In a way, Fassbender is the perfect man for the role. Remember the first 10 minutes of Shame, where a naked Fassbender walks around his sterilised and empty apartment? That’s him in The Killer. But Fassbender also understands the moments his character unveils the little pieces of his character and what they signify. There is some viciousness in the way he says the word “female” (and how he chooses that over “woman” says a lot). His empty stare while Swinton’s character talks is worth one thousand words of exposition – a mastery of silence and how to act with the eyes.

Fincher’s excitement in the action set pieces punctuates all of this. He is the kind of filmmaker where everything functions with the precision of a clock. Every detail is carefully thought out. The centrepiece of the film is a long fight with The Brute (Sala Baker), which starts following a scrupulous plan but quickly devolves into a brawl for the ages. Earlier, there’s a terrific sequence with The Lawyer (Charles Parnell) that, again, starts with this pitch-perfect plan that slowly devolves into the chaos our protagonist needs to adapt to.

The Killer is a deceptively wise film framed in a beautifully adorned package. It reminded me of the films of French filmmaker Jean Pierre Melville, but not Le Samouraï (also about a hitman) – one of his quiet adult ones, like Army of Shadows or Le Cercle Rouge, where men’s stoicism is a flaw they see as a virtue.

Verdict: 4 and a half out of 5
For fans of Fincher’s thrillers. Slick but brutal when it needs to be.