David Fincher began his career by doing simple things perfectly — so perfectly, they approached a spooky kind of rush. A Madonna video. A Brad Pitt serial killer movie. Later, the excitement was in watching him take on not-so-simple things, often continuing to do them perfectly. Another serial killer movie, this one darker and more suggestive. A film about Facebook and backstabbing. If Fincher has since gotten too fancy with his choice of material, there’s always the possibility of that flash returning.
“The Killer” is that moment and you realize it almost immediately (and not just because of his savage, sliced-up Venetian blinds of a credit sequence, tenderizing us beforehand). The blood-simple plot begins in Paris with an assassin, never named, on an “Annie Oakley job,” lining up his target in an adjacent building with a scoped rifle. The guy in the chair is played by Michael Fassbender, leaning into a kind of hyperfunctional blandness. Even as he coos his mantras in voiceover, they’re so banal, they come across like a narcotizing aural carpet: the cat calendar of murder tips (“Don’t improvise,” “Forbid empathy”).
In short, he’s a person about to do a simple thing perfectly. (“The Killer” is almost certainly Fincher’s most autobiographical film.) But in a microsecond of exploding glass, it all goes wrong, sending our shooter out onto the street, zooming through traffic and boarding international flights in order to get to the bottom of an already grisly piece of business. He arms himself amply. It’s the kind of no-nonsense revenge story that directors like John Boorman (1967’s “Point Blank”) or France’s Jean Pierre Melville (the Alain Delon-starring “Le Samourai”) used to elevate into high art.
But don’t confuse this one for high art. Don’t look for a wider cultural meaning. That’s by design. Adapted from a somewhat one-dimensional series of French comics by writer Matz and the artist Luc Jacamon — and further flattened out by “Seven” screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker — “The Killer” is an opportunity for America’s most stylish director to reboot, to get back to basics, to come in under two hours. I don’t even think the audience figured into it. Can a movie be made up of six chapters of violence, each one cut with vicious economy (by Fincher’s longtime editor Kirk Baxter), with no resort to flowery gangster language or metaphysical meandering?
You may find the lull of methodical process hypnotizing. In “The Killer,” you see everything Fincher does well, but in bursts. An icy but thawing Tilda Swinton shows up in one section for the kind of chessboard sparring that “Zodiac” was built on. (It’s also a reminder that this director needs only a corner table, two actors and a flight of whiskey to set off sparks.) An abandoned WeWork office — the perfect place for a stakeout — and a running gag about using sitcom names as aliases bring to mind the anti-corporate glint of “Fight Club.” And one extraordinary sequence of hand-to-hand combat, Erik Messerschmidt’s camera painting in near-abstract darkness, is as sleek as anything in “Panic Room” or “Gone Girl.”
Fassbender empties himself out for the assignment, blending into the anonymity of car-rental checkout desks and Amazon pickup lockers. He’s just a dude on a ferry, disposing of a body part late at night. For somebody constantly monologuing, he’s perversely opaque. The performance isn’t quite AI-grade but there’s some kind of algorithm working in Fassbender’s head, feeding on precise movements and channeling the smoothness of Fincher’s technique into a gliding, Michael Myers-like sense of inevitability.
He is surrounded by some of the year’s most textural sound design (the work is by Ren Klyce): chirping baby birds on a warming French morning, the ominous whir of machinery, the sharp ping of a silenced gun barrel. The synth score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is extra squelchy but, fittingly for this film, devoid of any graspable melodies. There is sensation here, lots of it, but zero judgment.
The closest “The Killer” comes to being laugh-out-loud funny is its soundtrack of 11 Smiths songs, the preferred playlist of Fassbender’s operator. (Pressing play on his phone, it says “Work Mix.”) Jangly and morose, marked by some of singer Morrissey’s choicest caterwauling, the indie-pop numbers rarely have a chance to flourish uninterrupted, but they punctuate the flow of the action in blasts, like clues. Heaven knows I’m miserable now? Maybe so. Or maybe it’s just a Tuesday. Fincher, on the other hand, is having the time of his life.