This article contains The Killer spoilers.
“Desperate for conversation.” Those are the only words uttered by Michael Fassbender’s hitman during his table-side chat with what amounts to something of a professional rival. On paper, the line is a deflection—a typically wry slice of irony shared by an assassin who in addition to being deadly is a master of the deadpan. Yet there is something to this admission in a scene where the film’s titular killer and another murderer beguilingly played by Tilda Swinton decide to share a drink.
Not even appearing for quite 10 minutes in David Fincher’s latest thriller, which just premiered on Netflix, Swinton’s unnamed character is simply credited as “the Expert.” That’s appropriate, because while she ends up on the wrong side of Fassbender’s pistol, the Swinton character brings a certain finesse the audience is encouraged to notice is absent in Fassbender’s protagonist. She also provides clarity about why our Killer is so preternaturally gifted… and doomed.
Throughout the brisk 86 minutes which precede Fassbender and Swinton’s tête-à-tête, the Killer is defined by his icy detachment. He truly does not have a real conversation with anyone, save for the audience. With nearly wall-to-wall voiceover narration, the internal monologue of our nameless murderer is ceaseless, and as much an attempt to convince himself as the viewer that his methods are flawless. He argues that the world is made up of the Many, who are taken, and the Few, who do the taking. He thinks he’s among the latter since he is paid something in the ballpark of six figures to end strangers’ lives.
However, the entire first half hour of the film is devoted to his meticulous planning coming to naught since the misstep of an unanticipated third party causes him to miss a kill shot. As a consequence, Fassbender goes from the hunter of the many to the one hunted by a few. While we never see exactly what happened, we are invited to piece together that Fassbender’s facilitator (Charles Parnell) sold him out, and two assassins were hired to snip the loose end of a hitman who seemingly can’t shoot straight. The result is Fassbender’s girlfriend ending up in the hospital, with apparently a “Brute” (Sala Baker) and Swinton’s Expert to blame.
When Fassbender finally catches up with the Expert near the end of the film, she is having a lavish dinner for a party of one at a swanky restaurant which knows her so well that she doesn’t even have to name the brand of whisky she drinks. And rather than try to simply murder her in the dark or on the road, Fassbender’s Killer decides to sit down at the table with the Swinton character. He wants to look her in the eye.
The sequence is illuminating because we see two kindred spirits who are nonetheless diametrically opposed in personalities and temperament. Swinton’s Expert is extroverted, warm, and ingratiating. The veteran actor plays her with a subtle touch of grace which suggests she really does enjoy being around people, even sharing what sounds like a sincere laugh with her favorite waiter before Fassbender and his concealed gun grab a chair. And upon facing what looks like her imminent doom, the charm is only ratcheted up as she attempts to subtly reason with Fassbender that it wasn’t personal, just business, and besides it was the “Brute” he already dealt with in Florida that put his girlfriend in the hospital. Or so she says.
Whereas Fassbender’s Killer is remote and self-justifying, Swinton’s Expert is outgoing and sober-eyed about what it is she does, and why she is now about to die for it. Or is she? Everything she says in this scene is intended to elicit sympathy, or at least a sense of camaraderie shared by associates in the same line of work. She succeeds insofar as getting a laugh out of Fassbender when she tells a story about a hunter who keeps trying to kill a bear that sodomizes him each day after he misses his shot. By the third day, the bear at last squints at the hunter and asks, “You’re not here for the hunting are you?”
So it is that Fassbender is not at this table for just a dish of cold-blooded revenge. He could’ve killed the Expert at her home or on the street, but he was desperate; not to kill her, but to gauge whether he really is a better assassin or if he’s just lucky to not be the one about to pay the final bill.
Fassbender is terrific in the movie at exuding a largely nonverbal physicality which reveals only flickers of emotions and second guesses beneath the Killer’s placid exterior. But for nine minutes of screen time, Swinton stops by to completely decimate his facade of implacability. He really is craving conversation, a problem Swinton’s character doesn’t seem to have. She enjoys her life and seemingly made peace with what she’s done to get it. The actress plays these emotions with a wearied dignity, like a lioness who stands proud over the gazelle she’s killed, even as a human with a spear comes to take it away. While we do not actually hear the Killer’s internal monologue in this sequence, one wonders if he is assessing himself to truly be the better assassin because he would never sit in a posh restaurant and order dessert.
And yet, it is worth noting she is sitting there alone. She doesn’t appear to have a significant other like the Killer. While being garrulous, she is in some respects just as lonely as our Killer. The reality is that neither are perfectly calibrated machines. They’re human, and over the course of the movie we witness both make mistakes. He survives his, for now, and she does not.
She warns him though that she will haunt him when the day inevitably comes where someone will punch his ticket too. And she claims the last thing he’ll think about is her face. This statement is obviously one last desperate attempt to distract the Killer, clouding his head with uncertainty before she makes a frantic play for survival: she slips on some stairs outside.
The Killer sees through the charade, putting a bullet in her forehead when she holds out a hand and says, “Help a girl up, won’t you?” His clearheaded sobriety is once again vindicated; she had slipped a knife out of her purse and was hoping to have the opportunity to cut him, perhaps from groin to sternum. Even so, she is the Ghost of Christmas Future for this story. She felt confident and safe enough in her superiority to never expect her killer to sit across from her and share a last supper. Her confidence narrowed her options and, eventually, lowered her guard.
But Fassbender’s Killer is no less supremely confident. Or deluded. He literally spent half an hour explaining every meticulous step he took in order to murder someone with a sniper rifle, even lamenting that doing so lacks the creative ingenuity he enjoys in staging “accidents.” He’s an artist bored with his pastels. That changes after it becomes a matter of his life or death, but at the end of the film he thinks he can still walk away as unscathed as Swinton.
In the final scene, the Killer and his girlfriend rest in beachside luxury, with the Killer’s eyes shaded by sunglasses. His final monologue is as follows: “The need to feel secure is a slippery slope. Fate is a placebo. The only life path, the one behind you. If in the brief time we’re all given you can’t accept this, then maybe you’re not one of the Few. Maybe you’re just like me, one of the Many.”
If only to himself, the Killer is vaguely aware that the false sense of security he created by killing all those people is an illusion. He is as safe from his past catching up with him as Swinton’s Expert, and whatever vices either drowns that doubt in—be it a flight of whiskies or an espresso and lemon—it will not change the fact that they aren’t actually one of the Few.
The Few are so privileged that even when they order a hit on you, a la Arliss Howard’s “The Client,” you’ll let them live. The Many fight only each other tooth and nail, sometimes to the death. We die over the scraps. That’s the Killer and the Expert, and in the end someone a little more aware will one day be sitting across from him with a gun. That’s the real killer truth in this life.