Movies are full of glamorous hit men. For “The Killer,” the director put his star in a bucket hat: “The $3,000 suit seems like it’s played out.”
By Kyle Buchanan
Reporting from Venice, Italy
It’s been 24 years since David Fincher brought one of his movies to the Venice Film Festival, and the last time, things didn’t go so well.
“I came here with a little film called ‘Fight Club’” in 1999, he told me during an interview on the Lido this week. “We were fairly run out of town for being fascists.” Even before the premiere of that controversial Brad Pitt flick, the director could sense trouble. “I looked down and the youngest person in our row was Giorgio Armani,” Fincher said. “I was like, ‘I’m not sure the guest list is the right guest list for this.’”
So what makes lofty Venice the right place to premiere “The Killer,” Fincher’s new thriller and his first film since the Oscar-winning Hollywood drama “Mank”?
“Nothing,” cracked Fincher. “Venice seems like it’s very highbrow — important movies about important subjects — and then there’s our skeevy little movie.”
Still, Fincher has always enjoyed toying with people’s expectations. He does it even within the world of “The Killer,” which premiered in Venice on Sunday and stars Fassbender as a hired gun who has to improvise after a fatal assignment goes awry.
Based on a French graphic novel and adapted by Andrew Kevin Walker (“Seven”), the film at first feels like a high-end take on the usual genre tropes: There’s the assassin with no name, the innocent woman in the way and the methodical list of revenge targets to be pursued. But then our protagonist’s constant patter of narration starts to show cracks, as the Killer often thinks one thing and does another. By the end, you’ll wonder if we know this guy at all, or whether he’s ever really known himself.
And then there’s what he’s wearing. Though Hollywood would have us believe that assassins always look impossibly chic and well-tailored, Fincher puts his protagonist in Skechers, a zip-up fleece and a bucket hat.
“He’s totally dorky!” the director said. “We were never intending for it to look glamorous.”
Inspiration struck when Fincher flipped through reference photos and landed on a German tourist snapped wearing those nondescript items on the streets of Paris. “I was like, ‘All of this stuff could be purchased in an airport,’” said Fincher, who sent the photo to his costume designer, Cate Adams. “I said, ‘This is what he needs to be, a guy who can get off a plane and buy a whole wardrobe on his way from the gate to the rental car.’”
Fincher found no complaints from his leading man, who wasn’t in Venice because of the SAG-AFTRA strike: “Michael’s cool. He was not freaked out about having to look a little dorky.” And that aesthetic extends even to the Killer’s escape from a botched job, which takes place not via high-speed car chase but with a zippy little motor scooter, though Fincher considered taking that sequence in an even dweebier direction. “At one point, we even debated the Razor scooter,” he said, nixing that only because it wouldn’t perform well during a stair stunt.
So though the Killer remains a mystery to himself, at least one thing can be said for sure of this indifferently dressed man: He ain’t exactly John Wick.
“The $3,000 suit seems like it’s played out,” Fincher said. Still, he was surprised to find someone wearing his protagonist’s silly headwear in another recent assassin movie: “It’s funny because when Pitt told me he had selected a bucket hat for ‘Bullet Train,’ I was like, ‘OK, dude, you’re stepping into our sandbox.’”
Though Fincher has a skill for image-making that extends back to the music videos he directed for the likes of Madonna, with “The Killer,” he was more interested in dismantling that sort of cinematic iconography. Instead of a glamorous lair, Fassbender’s character keeps his weapons in a mundane storage locker, and instead of using high-tech gadgets to break into targets’ homes, he orders key-duplication tools off Amazon.
“I was like, ‘I want James Bond by way of Home Depot,’” Fincher said. “By the end of this, you should be like, who’s the guy in the rental car line with you, and why is he wearing that outdated hat? You ignore the German tourist at your peril.”
And while the movies would have us believe that the world is full of clever, high-flying assassins, Fincher sought to ground his character’s tunnel vision in a more mundane reality. “I love the idea of a Charles Bronson character who’s maybe misdiagnosed adult autistic,” he said. “And before 2023, I’m not sure anybody would have gone, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’”
So if the Killer’s fashion choices or inner motivations sometimes stump you, just know that’s by design.
“He seems to have a hard time reading the room,” Fincher said. “And any room that he goes into, eventually, he’s the only guy in it.”
Kyle Buchanan is a pop culture reporter and serves as The Projectionist, the awards season columnist for The Times. He is the author of “Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road.” More about Kyle Buchanan
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