November 2023

Arts & Letters

Into the streaming void: ‘The Killer’ and ‘They Cloned Tyrone’

By Shane Danielsen

Michael Fassbender in ‘The Killer’

David Fincher’s stylish pulp and Juel Taylor’s SF-adjacent satire are the latest riches to be taken for granted in the ever-ready, abundant world of Netflix

Talking with a friend the other day, he noted an interesting fact: that few things are as discouraging to a film’s audience as its premiere on a streaming platform. “Take that Pablo Larráin film [El Conde, reviewed last issue]. I was dying to see that – right up until the moment it appeared on my watchlist. And then, for some reason, I could hardly care less.” Would he watch it, though? “Oh, I’ll get around to it eventually, I suppose.”

As you might’ve heard, the cinema-going experience is currently at something of a crossroads. Sure, “Barbenheimer” was great, a triumph of cross-promotional marketing savvy – but that’s very much a one-time thing. As I write this, Taylor Swift is doing her own, not-at-all small bit to put bums back on seats, and good on her for that. But while I can’t deny there’s something pretty terrific about entering a cinema to see a phalanx of Swifties resplendent in Eras dress-up, there’s also something deeply dispiriting about going to the other movie you were there to see (the Argentine horror film When Evil Lurks – absolutely fantastic), and finding you’re one of nine people in the audience. At 7pm on a Saturday night.

For all but the biggest releases, that’s just the way things are now. The exhibition sector is in rough shape.

Streaming, meanwhile, embodies the prevailing ethos of our age: instant, on-demand gratification, for a steadily rising fee. But it also highlights a fundamental problem with the release and consumption of entertainment. Denied the finite status of a physical release – by which I mean not so much the premiere date as the promise of closure, the limited window one has in which to watch – and absent the physical effort involved in a destination event (getting in one’s car, finding a park, perhaps paying for a babysitter), it’s remarkably easy to take these riches for granted. Ensconced in that box on top of the telly, they become literally part of the furniture, the ambient domestic clutter of our lives. Like that pile of unread books beside the bed, or the smartphone full of photos that we’ll absolutely, definitely get around to backing up, one day.

And of course, even with the best will in the world, sometimes things just get lost. Did you know that there’s not one but four new Wes Anderson short films on Netflix right now? You may have seen the launch screen for The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, the first of the quartet to be “released” – you might even have watched it – but I wager that many subscribers didn’t so much as suspect the existence of the other three (for the record: The Swan, The Rat Catcher and Poison). They’re just… well, one hesitates to say “content”. (They’re actually pretty great: the short format definitely suits him.) But inessential, certainly. Little ripples in an ocean of abundance.

David Fincher made his last feature film, the ’30s Hollywood drama Mank, for Netflix back in 2020. A sort-of biopic of the screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, it earned mostly respectful reviews, won two Oscars, and then, like so much else in the (ahem) “streaming space”, seemed to disappear entirely from the cultural conversation. He’s an extremely bright guy – along with Steven Soderbergh and James Gray, probably the most articulate of contemporary American filmmakers – and this squandering of his labours would hardly have been lost upon him. (Because as anyone who’s endured his penchant for endless retakes would attest, making films for Fincher is nothing if not a labour-intensive exercise.)

The Killer, on Netflix from November 10, represents something of a course-correction. It’s not quite Fincher giving the people what they want. (That would be a third season of Mindhunter, thank you very much.) But it does hew much closer to Fight Club and Se7en, the two titles that first made his reputation, than to a vanity project such as Mank. The rococo pulp of those early films is fully in evidence here – from Erik Messerschmidt’s burnished cinematography and Kirk Baxter’s surgically precise editing to the thrumming, dissonant score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. (The film’s sound design is a marvel in itself; it practically demands an upgrade to your home speaker setup.)

These are all long-time Fincher collaborators, and the assurance of their collaboration shows: the film runs like a Swiss watch, precision-tooled and sleekly efficient, engineered to be admired as well as enjoyed. Beyond that flawless surface, however, there’s not much going on – and honestly, that’s fine. This is an exercise in pure style, with a plot taken from half a dozen other hitman movies (a job goes wrong, the “hero” has to take out his paymasters before they kill him), a string of dazzlingly achieved set-pieces, and occasional gestures in the direction of the other, funnier film it might have been.

Though based on a popular series of graphic novels by Alexis Nolent and Luc Jacamon, The Killer actually draws much of its inspiration from another, earlier French source: Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 classic Le Samouraï – the ur-text for films about hired assassins, and just about the coolest movie ever made. Starring Alain Delon as a silent, Fedora-wearing hitman, it’s a study in chic minimalism; even Henri Decaë’s creamy cinematography was confined to shades of grey, blue, white and black.

This version, more expansive but barely more colourful, shot by Messerschmidt in Fincher’s typical palette of septic greens and yellows, has Michael Fassbender in the lead, as a hired gun moving dispassionately from job to job. A dependable representative of the gig economy, he’s carefully anonymous, and the decision to situate this nameless cipher in a landscape of highly visible brands – Amazon, WeWork, McDonald’s, FedEx – represents one of the film’s best, and sourest, jokes. Because it’s all business.

In Le Samouraï, it takes 10 minutes for Delon to utter his first line of dialogue; Fassbender, by contrast, barely shuts up. His voiceover runs like a continuo through the first half-hour, as his character scatters a string of banal platitudes (“Life is kill or be killed; winner takes all”) and therapy-speak mantras (“the only clear path in life is behind you”) into his lengthy ruminations on the efficacy of violence and the importance of routine. Initially annoying, this monologue soon proves dryly amusing – and Fassbender also displays, at times, an unexpected talent for physical comedy. But these tics aside, it’s a chilly performance in a remarkably cold movie, one sustained less by suspense than by an almost erotic fascination with process and proficiency. The filmmaker’s rapt attention to tradecraft – the false passports, the waiting dropboxes, the discarded cellphones – achieves, in the end, a nearly hypnotic quality. Like watching Ricky Jay do card magic.

Indeed, the film seems perversely delighted by its own lack of depth – as if Fincher, mindful of its provenance, was tailoring his output to match the medium. By this, I don’t mean to imply that he’s phoning it in. On the contrary: one of the best sequences here, a lengthy fight in a Florida shack, single-handedly attests to his technical mastery. But I do suspect that he might have questioned just how deeply engaged the average Netflix viewer needs to be by the content they consume, and trimmed his sails accordingly. He knows that, however carefully crafted, the result will ultimately be just further grist to the content mill. So why trouble them with substance when you’ve already given them such a surfeit of style?

Also on Netflix, and woefully under-noticed, is Juel Taylor’s They Cloned Tyrone. Reportedly shot two years ago, it sat on the shelf for reasons that surpasseth understanding before being dumped on the platform, with relatively little fanfare, in late July. Which is a shame, because it’s one of the better American comedies of this year, a genuinely funny sci-fi tinged adventure that also has some trenchant points to make about race and cultural stereotypes.

In The Glen, a hardscrabble inner-city neighbourhood, Fontaine (an almost unrecognisable John Boyega) sullenly goes about his daily grind: collecting cash, keeping rivals off his turf, mentoring a local kid. Everything about Fontaine’s life is a Black-cinema cliche: his occupation (drug dealer), his younger brother (dead), even his beater of a car (’76 Pontiac Grand Prix, a certified ghetto classic). But then, everyone in The Glen has a role to play, from the street hookers who know everything that’s going on, to the crusty old dude slumped outside the convenience store, tossing off cryptic little koans every time someone goes by. It all feels faintly programmatic. And that’s precisely the point.

Shortly after leaning on motormouthed pimp Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx), Fontaine is shot dead by another crew – only to wake up the next morning in his apartment, good as gold. He has no memory of his murder, a fact not lost on Slick Charles – whom he shakes down for cash all over again – or on Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris), Charles’s main earner. And when their visit to a nearby house reveals a lift to an underground facility, complete with another dead Fontaine on a table, the trio begin to investigate what has begun to seem like a city-wide conspiracy, designed to monitor and regulate its Black citizens. (Amusingly, the answer has something to do with fried chicken, hair straightener and grape “drank”.)

It takes a while before you realise that you’re not watching a modern blaxploitation flick so much as a live-action episode of Scooby-Doo, evil mastermind and all. Yet it works – in part because Taylor not only respects his sources (there are nods to a number of ’70s grindhouse classics and to Nancy Drew), he adroitly balances the comedy with more dramatic beats. A moment when the trio tool up, striking poses like The Mod Squad, is improbably thrilling; likewise, the scene late in the film when Slick Charles summons “the motherfucking cavalry”. (Setting that sequence to Rene & Angela’s R’n’B classic “I’ll Be Good” doesn’t exactly hurt, either.)

But mostly, the film works because of the extraordinary chemistry between its three leads, each of whom brings something different to the table. Boyega is stoic and soulful, Foxx is manic and hysterical, running away with many of the film’s best lines while also maintaining an undercurrent of steely menace (it’s his best performance since Django Unchained), and Parris is irreverent, loyal and courageous. And Taylor and his co-writer, Tony Rettenmaier, have given them some riotously profane dialogue to make the most of – much of which, for reasons of career self-preservation, I’m extremely hesitant to quote. Foxx and Parris, in particular, have such a rapport that you may find yourself hoping they do more movies together, like some foul-mouthed modern-day William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Aesthetically, too, it’s an unusually satisfying package. Shooting on digital but using older lenses and film emulation technology, Ken Seng’s desaturated, heavy-grain cinematography has a vintage, tactile quality; from the very first frames, it looks like nothing else on Netflix. (That Seng was inspired by photographer Todd Hido makes perfect sense: the scenes here of deserted streets by night are almost direct re-creations of Hido’s work.)

I enjoyed Tyrone rather more than Jordan Peele’s also SF-adjacent 2019 film Us, mostly because, as opposed to that film, I wasn’t sitting there picking obvious holes in its plot-logic. There’s an obvious tension here from the get-go, with characters discussing blockchain technology in rooms that look straight out of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. (The Glen, one character notes wryly, is “kinda lost in time”.) But there’s also a guiding principle behind those choices. Stylistic decisions that seem arbitrary or fanciful in the beginning – Charles’s extravagant, pimp-tastic wardrobe, the purposeful obfuscation of the setting (Tyrone’s number plate just says “A Swell Place”), even the very blaxploitation format – all make perfect sense once the truth is revealed. Of course it still feels like 1976 in The Glen. It suits those in charge better that way.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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