It's not easy to make a movie about a man whose survival depends on anonymity and obsessive attention to detail, so much so that he's constantly replaying a manual of instructions in his head. "Stick to the plan. Anticipate, don't improvise."
That's the profile of the nameless character who occupies the center of David Fincher's The Killer, a plunge into the life of a high-paid assassin who plies his lethal trade with exactitude and indifference to anyone else's causes or concerns.
A major irony triggers Fincher's movie.
After a tense and artfully shot opening scene in which the killer (a trim Michael Fassbender) waits for his prey, he misses. Having botched the job, the killer flees the empty Parisian office he'd been occupying as he prepared to shoot someone in the apartment across the street.
Once he misses his mark and the movie finishes some wily flirtation with Rear Window voyeurism, the killer embarks on a globe-hopping trip spurred by the story's core mystery.
Fincher has made terrific real life crime movies (Zodiac) and movies that rely on a mixture of fantasy and bristling cynicism (Se7en and Fight Club). He's never made a movie that wasn't steeped in style and directorial competence.
Put another way, Fincher knows what he's doing and we feel his confidence.
Post his assassination attempt, the killer heads to a retreat he keeps in the Dominican Republic. When he arrives home -- a very nice place, by the way -- he learns that his lover (Sophie Charlotte) has been a badly beaten.
Then it's off again, this time to get to the bottom of what brought his lover to the brink of death. He travels to Chicago, New Orleans, Illinois, and Beacon, New York.
Fincher introduces the movie's chapters with title cards based on the characters the killer tracks: The Brute and The Expert, for example. Sala Baker plays The Brute; Tilda Swinton appears as The Expert.
Fassbender has been given some amusing dialogue and his character uses a string of fake credit cards issued in the name of TV characters, Archibald Bunker to cite one example.
It's as if Fincher is inviting us to play a cinematic game that's willing to wink at us from time-to-time.
But when it comes to the killer's MO, Fincher pulls no punches when the killer confronts the go-between separating clients from killer (Charles Parnell) or his frightened secretary (Kerry O'Malley).
The performances are crisp but I wouldn't regard The Killer as an actors' showcase; it's a director's movie -- with help from cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, an edgy score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and tunes from the synth-heavy group, The Smiths.
Based on a French graphic novel, The Killer slides through a world without either God-given or human morality. But this isn't Dostoevsky, it's a thriller that keeps us in a state of agitation as Fincher displays efficiency void of judgment.
Oh, and for good measure, he adds a brutally extended fight scene that includes an encounter with a pit bull.
The Killer may not be Fincher's best work but, within its narrow constraints, it nails its moves.