Look at the size of that McGuffin. That’s a device that facilitates the film and the plot – Hitchcock used them a lot, it could be said that the thievery and affair in ‘Psycho’ was a huge McGuffin, to get Janet Leigh to the Bates Motel where the real plot took place.
Here the McGuffin is central. The McGuffin is the job, The Killer’s job. He’s an assassin, a paid hitman, so the job is at the basis of everything.
But that isn’t the point of this movie.
So many movies do the Cool Killer thing that it’s good when movies don’t. Not denigrating ‘Pulp Fiction’, it’s a class act, but Travolta and L.Jackson spout memorable lines every time they open their mouths; compare that to the 2 killers in ‘Kill List’, I can’t remember much of what they said, but their characters stay close to me.
Here Michael Fassbender is the effortlessly Cool Killer. Except he isn’t. We see him spending days in a deserted office watching a hotel opposite for sight of his quarry. He sleeps on the table he will set his gun on. He cleans his gun. He walks the streets and has a McDonalds.
And all this time, he repeats his mantra. Not to get involved. Not to empathise. To think what’s in it for him.
This is the first clue that this Killer is not Kool.
The second is when he misses the target and hits a woman who is there to please his quarry.
And this sets off a series of events…
The Personal v The Process
After The Killer flees the scene, his breathing thick and ragged (that’s not cool), we see him taking a circuitous route to a hiding place in the Dominican Republic where he finds his girlfriend has been attacked – that’s not in the assassin’s manual either, you are supposed to have no emotional encumbrances they can get to you through. And the names he uses for his travels? Pop culture, all of them, is such a personal statement. As is his playlist of The Smiths…
But he has. And this is part of the basis of the film; the Personal v The Process.
The Killer embarks on a ‘McGuffin’ of vengeance, seeking out the middle man, a suave solicitor called Hogdes played with righteous indignation by Charles Parnell. The Killer makes a mistake here too, killing Hodges before he can get the info on who messed with his girlfriend before having to get said info from Dolores, the office administrator.
Dolores resigned to her death from the off, asks The Killer to make it look like an accident. He complies – that ain’t Kool.
Nor is his fight with The Brute. We’re used to Matt Damon, Tom Cruise or Keanu Reeves unpacking mixed martial arts brilliance to dispatch opponents. This time the battle is prolonged, and violent and The Killer looks down and out several times and bears the scars on their face afterwards.
This is very human. And it gets even more so when The Killer confronts Tilda Swinton’s The Expert, a fellow assassin caught at her favourite restaurant and ruing the time she didn’t have ice cream.
She knows she will die. And the long scene is basically her intelligent, unwavering chat. That chat makes her human. She doesn’t beg as she knows it won’t do any good but her technique, used on interrogators, to make her seem human, corporeal, harder to kill.
And personal to him. This is at the heart of the film.
The AI Question
Perhaps I’m raising it because it’s trendy. But this process v personal seems to suggest the question at the heart of AI; if we remove the personal for the process, what happens to people?
This film shows the people at the end of the process. Even the big businessman, Claybourne the Client, has no idea of the process, apart from the one which asked him if he wanted to pay more money to tie up the loose end The Killer’s botch had created.
And so The Killer leaves him still breathing, here the Process and the Personal don’t align.
There will always be glorious messes that humans create and here they are celebrated – no mess, no plot.
The Killer: Is This A Film Or An Exercise?
A film. Oh yes, very much a film. Stone-faced Michael Fassbender is nevertheless flawed and despite his taut body, somewhat flabby, gloriously so.
And Tilda Swinton, twittering about the minutiae of her life, enjoying it for the last time, creates a wish to hug her, despite her grisly occupation.
These two are stunning performances, completely eschewing that Kool to show the frailty we, as audiences, love so much.
Director David Fincher allows this tale to unfold at the character’s pace, The Killer methodical; the Expert has the focus of the camera whilst she entrances with her monologue, the fight sequence slow and brutal.
It’s the messiness of these scenes that Fincher wants to give us, the blood and barbarism of the battle, the Expert’s distraction from death, The Killer’s human fallibility. Geoffrey Macnab in The Independent may say;
‘It’s questionable, too, whether Fincher brings anything fresh to the genre. ‘
but I cannot agree. This film pushes against the perfection, the facelessness, the less interesting AI. And for that, much thanks.