The Killer (Michael Fassbender) sits in an airport looking shady in an all-beige outfit.


David Fincher paints a picture of his latest film’s inscrutable protagonist with a few pop culture references — from The Smiths to The Partridge Family.

22 November 20236 min read

In director David Fincher’s expertly crafted new thriller, The Killer, Michael Fassbender stars as a highly skilled assassin whose carefully constructed life descends into chaos after a high-stakes job goes awry. Adapted by Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker from the acclaimed graphic novel by Alexis “Matz” Nolent, the film is rooted in the mind of the eponymous hit man as he traverses the globe, hunting those who dare threaten him. Fassbender’s protagonist is ruthlessly efficient, but he’s far from a conventional hero, as neither director nor star wanted to glamorize the character. “We thought it would be interesting if the ‘cool’ assassin movie tropes were all taken away,” says Fincher. “I wanted him to be somebody that you wouldn’t notice on the street. He’s not a scary person you could identify just by looking at him, but once you get inside his head . . . ”

To lend the slightest bit of insight into the mysterious hit man and punctuate The Killer with moments of subtle black comedy, Fincher included a variety of sly pop culture references. Below, Queue offers a guide to some of the movie’s most notable nods.

The Smiths, in black and white. From left to right: Morrissey wears a white shirt and checkered jacket, Mike Joyce has dark hair, Andy Rourke wears a popped-collar black jacket, and Johnny Marr wears a collared shirt.

The Smiths

Photograph by Terence Spencer / Popperfoto via Getty Images.


Fincher’s frequent collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed the score for The Killer, but one of England’s most venerated and influential 1980s bands provided the soundtrack for the hit man’s day-to-day life. Pairing deliciously macabre lyrics courtesy of the quartet’s frontman Morrissey with Johnny Marr’s jangly guitar chords, The Smiths set the tone with unforgettably cerebral pop music that has endured for decades. Tracks featured in the film include some of the group’s most immediately recognizable songs — “How Soon Is Now?,” “Girlfriend in a Coma,” and “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” among them.

Explains Fincher: “We needed something that fit the nature of our lead character, and The Smiths were the requisite mix of sardonic, harmonic, and nihilist. What songwriters have as much fun with sinister concepts as Johnny Marr and Morrissey? We just kept coming back to The Smiths.”

The Client (Arliss Howard) wears a sweater over a Sub Pop T-shirt in a dark room lit by TVs.

The Client (Arliss Howard)


For Fassbender’s character, the key to career longevity is to avoid notice, which means dressing in an intentionally nondescript manner. For costume designer Cate Adams, that meant veering away from any wardrobe that might be considered too stylish or flashy. “David didn’t want any black for The Killer,” Adams says. “He didn’t want him to look menacing. We put him in stone colors, lighter tones, with everybody else in the background in darker tones.”

Unlike The Killer’s own generic sartorial preferences, the unfortunate individuals who find themselves in his path are more memorable. Arliss Howard’s character, known as the Client, sports a T-shirt bearing the logo for the iconic Seattle, Washington-based record label Sub Pop, a garment immediately recognizable to a certain tribe of indie music lovers. Founded in 1988 by Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, Sub Pop was the first to release music from Nirvana and Mudhoney, and the label became synonymous with the grunge sound that defined rock music of the early 1990s. These days, the label’s roster includes Beach House, The Postal Service, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Suki Waterhouse, and Iron & Wine.


Traveling undercover requires numerous aliases, and Fassbender’s killer has plenty — many of them taken from popular sitcoms of the 1970s and 80s. All the names, however, are sufficiently generic to avoid ringing any alarm bells with passport control or with the desk agents at various hotels and rental car counters. Does Robert Hartley sound familiar? Thank The Bob Newhart Show, which ran from 1972 to 1978 and starred Bob Newhart as put-upon Chicago psychologist Bob Hartley. How about Reuben Kincaid? It’s the name of the child-hating agent played by actor Dave Madden on 70s family sitcom The Partridge Family about a widowed mother of five who forms a band with her brood. And George Jefferson? An homage to Sherman Hemsley’s hot-tempered New York businessman from Emmy-winning All in the Family and its spin-off The Jeffersons, which ran for a full decade from 1975 to 1985.