In one of the many gnomic remarks of his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein writes: “When ‘I raise my arm’, my arm rises. And now a problem emerges: what is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm rises from the fact that I raise my arm?” The idea behind such a question is that some, but not all, of our behavior deserves to be called “action” — that our doings or performances should only count as “actions” if they are in some way willed, if they can be seen as intentional under some description. (Wittgenstein follows up by asking: “Are the kinaesthetic sensations my willing?”) Actions, then, are actions only insofar as they can be seen within a network of goals and obstacles, ends and means — that is, insofar as they are caught up in practices of reasoning about the action. (One could convincingly ask whether someone really understood the concept of action if they didn’t also understand the concept of a reason for action.) Whatever its implications for philosophy, this notion of action raises an interesting filmmaking consideration, for if actions are performances that are intentional under some description, then in the context of the cinema, the conditions of representation make all the difference. Depending on its manner of presentation, the same doing or performance, in terms of material outcome, might or might not take on the significance of an action. The issue of whether we are able to discern an intention to begin with may be a function of how a given filmmaker elaborates certain relations of movement and time.
David Fincher’s latest feature, The Killer, picks up and radicalizes the consequences of this basic insight. Centered on a professional assassin played by Michael Fassbender, the film follows a genre template in a manner that’s almost insulting in its simplicity: when Fassbender’s killer botches a high-stakes job and finds himself with a bounty on his head, he has to eliminate a number of people to set things right. The skeletal plot, of course, is part and parcel of Fincher’s overall presentation, which attempts, as much as possible, to purge every one of the killer’s doings of recognizable desire and intention. No doing will be imbued with the sort of rational agency that the action-thriller template typically thrives on; performances will be bound up not in relations of reason and action, but by the necessity of cause and effect. And in Fassbender’s unnamed killer, Fincher has found an ideal subject: a man who would like nothing more than to slough off the burdens of self-consciousness and attain the brute efficiency of a perfect cause.
In this sense, The Killer is the precise antithesis of the latest Mission: Impossible entry. Whereas that film, with its all-knowing Entity, could bring every occurrence under the “knowing” of an intentional being, and hence given some sort of willed meaning or significance, The Killer goes the other way, tending to what one might call a purely perceptive, “objective” montage, tracing out a chain of cause and effect while obscuring our ability to discern any subjective will, desire, or intention. In most every scene, Fincher withholds the killer’s deliberation, instead filling the gap with internal monologue that signals not so much interiority as white noise, as well as a soundtrack featuring nearly a dozen Smiths tracks, which serves much the same function. That the emotions of Fassbender’s killer are mainly signaled via heart rate changes on his smartwatch is a nice touch and indicative of the film’s overall perspective.
It should be said that Fincher is hardly the first director to venture beyond the paradigm of action and intention, while still working within a recognizable genre template. (Don Siegel’s 1973 masterpiece, Charley Varrick, comes to mind.) And the process-oriented results he gets, while technically unimpeachable and occasionally invigorating, fall short of inspired. There is certainly some charge to seeing Fincher depict the distinctly 21st-century technocratic world-machine we inhabit — a network of Postmates deliveries and Amazon orders; of rental cars and airport layovers; and, somewhere along the line, of tech moguls and the hired assassins they order with a click of a button. And the fact that the killer’s prime strategy for staying under the radar is not to avoid surveillance (which is ruled out as impossible), but simply to conform to a prescribed normalcy, gives the film a not-unwelcome air of weary contempt for contemporary existence. While The Killer represents something of a stylistic endpoint for Fincher, however, it does demonstrate the limits of simply following things out to their logical conclusion, in that one is left wondering whether more could have been done.
DIRECTOR: David Fincher; CAST: Michael Fassbender, Tilda Swinton, Arliss Howard, Charles Parnell; DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix; IN THEATERS: October 27; STREAMING: November 10; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 58 min.