David Fincher’s “The Killer” is currently the No. 1 movie on Netflix since its premiere last Friday, while George C. Wolfe’s “Rustin” premieres this Friday hoping to enter the Oscar race.
Turns out, both are pretty solid watches for most of their runtimes, but both leave us with less than stellar finishes that could have been so much more. Still, I think one is a little more worth your time than the other, so which should you check out first?
Time for a double movie review:
When I first heard that the prolific David Fincher was making a new movie called “The Killer,” I naturally thought it would be about detectives tracking a serial killer, which has been his auteur staple in crime masterpieces from “Se7en” (1995) to “Zodiac” (2007), not to mention TV’s “Mindhunter” (2017-2019).
While “The Killer” is indeed written by “Se7en” scribe Andrew Kevin Walker, it is instead a slowburn action thriller told from the perspective of the killer — a coldblooded professional assassin who patiently waits for his kill shot, only for the hit job to go terribly wrong, sending him on the run in an international search.
Michael Fassbender taps into the robotic dialogue he delivered as the Android in “Prometheus” (2012), only this time reading cold voice-over narration filled with statistics on death rates, baseball batting averages and the number of McDonald’s in France. It’s the sort of data-driven dialogue that Jack Lemmon spun into comedy gold in “The Apartment” (1960) with Fincher giving a slight nod to Lemmon by making The Killer’s alias “Felix Unger.”
While HBO’s “Barry” (2018-2023) started as a laugh-out loud comedy before plunging Bill Hader into darkness, “The Killer” is the opposite, starting out serious before finding a few comic surprises along the way. Don’t get it twisted, though; the tone mostly bends toward the dramatic as Fassbender tells himself to “stick to the plan,” “trust no one” and “forbid empathy,” talking to himself like Guy Pearce in Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” (2000).
Based on the French graphic novel series by Alexis “Matz” Nolent and Luc Jacamon, Fincher divides the film into distinct segments: “Chapter 1: Paris/The Target (patient setup), Chapter 2: Dominican Republic/The Hideout (revenge), Chapter 3: New Orleans/The Lawyer (gruesome), Chapter 4: Florida/The Brute (action-packed), Chapter 5: New York/The Expert (Tilda Swinton existentialism) and Chapter 6: Chicago/The Client” (conclusion).
While these sections create an episodic feel, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Many mainstream viewers will find the pacing a bit slow, particularly when streaming it on Netflix with the unfortunate distractions of home. This is the type of methodical movie that would be better experienced on the big screen, featuring stylish POV shots through binoculars and sniper-rifle scopes as the protagonist gazes through various windows and tails his victims down streets and staircases.
The craftsmanship is undeniable, but its cold distance keeps it far from Fincher’s undisputed Mount Rushmore of “Se7en” (1995), “Fight Club” (1999), “Zodiac” (2007) and “The Social Network” (2010). The second tier includes engrossing films like “The Game” (1997), “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008), “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2009) and “Gone Girl” (2014), landing “The Killer” somewhere down around “Mank” (2020). Has Netflix stolen some of Fincher’s cinematic magic?
I won’t go that far. There is still plenty to like here. I mean, it’s David freakin’ Fincher! Let’s just say that the protagonist’s professional philosophy sums up my feelings toward this solidly-crafted but emotionally reticent film: “It comes down to preparation, attention to details, redundancies, redundancies and redundancies.”
We all know the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The new movie “Rustin” tells the lesser known story of the unsung hero who organized that march, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who publicly fought for equality for Black Americans while privately fighting for respect as a gay man. As he tells MLK in the movie, this dual existence wasn’t a lifestyle choice, but a double birth right: “The day I was born Black, I was also born a homosexual.”
The film features an electrifying performance by Colman Domingo, who is certain to be nominated for an Oscar against Cillian Murphy (“Oppenheimer”), Bradley Cooper (“Maestro”) and Leonardo DiCaprio (“Killers of the Flower Moon”). It’s overdue after Domingo’s Tony nod for “The Scottsboro Boys” (2010), Emmy win for “Euphoria” (2022) and two Indie Spirit Award nominations for “Zola” (2020) and “My Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020).
In “Rustin,” Domingo reunites with “Ma Rainey” director George C. Wolfe, who delivers the polished look of a Hollywood biopic like “The Butler” (2013), “Hidden Figures” (2016) or “Green Book” (2018), but not quite the directorial prowess of “Malcolm X” (1992), “Selma” (2014) or “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018). Still, there are cool shots like reflections of racists in a Black woman’s sunglasses or phones ringing off the hook in Rustin’s mind.
Wolfe even includes a clever needle drop of Little Richard, arguably the most famous example of a closeted gay Black man in the ’60s, as the soundtrack keeps the film moving well. Fittingly, the script is written by Dustin Lance Black, who penned the Oscar-winning script about gay rights activist Harvey Milk in “Milk” (2008), and Julian Breece, a writer on the Emmy-winning series about the Central Park Five in “When They See Us” (2019).
Their script swiftly carries us through Rustin resigning from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, clashing with NAACP Director Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock), negotiating with unionist A. Philip Randolph (Glynn Turman) and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright), fielding critiques by feminist Ella Baker (Audra McDonald), mourning the murder of Medgar Evers (Rashad Demond Edwards) and planning the march with Dr. King (Aml Ameen).
In fact, the second act of the script is paced so well that the ending feels rushed. After so much exciting build-up, audiences are jacked to see the big event at the Lincoln Memorial, but instead we only see a brief song by Mahalia Jackson (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and the final “free at last” lines of King’s iconic speech. Sure, we’ve all seen footage of King’s real speech plenty of times, but without it, the film’s final act feels oddly anticlimactic.
As the march organizers clean up chairs in the aftermath of the event, the falling action at least shows the impact of the march with closing text. Not only did Congress pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 just nine months later, Rustin found a life-long romantic partner until his death in 1987, posthumously receiving the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, who co-produces the film for Higher Ground Productions.
Overall, it’s a strong telling of an important story, one that is sure to garner multiple Oscar nominations, but most likely for its powerful performances as the film’s star finally rises into the ranks of Hollywood’s top actors with a label that soon no one will be able to take away from him: Academy Award Nominee Colman Domingo.