Discover more from The Bulwark
‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’ and ‘The Killer’ Reviews
Plus: The evolution of streaming releases.
A COUPLE OF YEARS BACK, a movie came out called Willy’s Wonderland, about a drifter (Nic Cage) who is forced into deadly combat against a series of Chuck E. Cheese-style animatronics at an abandoned children’s pizza parlor. “When Nic Cage is on the screen it’s tolerably weird,” I wrote of that picture. “When literally any other character is doing anything it’s genuinely one of the four or five worst movies I’ve ever watched?”
I mention this because Five Nights at Freddy’s is about as good as Willy’s Wonderland but without the soothingly bizarre presence of Nicolas Cage.
If we’re being slightly more charitable about this movie featuring a guy forced into deadly combat against a series of Chuck E. Cheese-style animatronics at an abandoned children’s pizza parlor, we might describe it as a feature-length episode of Nickelodeon’s early-1990s kiddie horror show, Are You Afraid of the Dark? or Fox Family’s mid-1990s Goosebumps. The opening sequence is indicative: a security guard is chased by an unknown horror—spooky shadows on the walls, eerie echoes, his wide-eyed terror suggesting something truly awful—until he finds himself strapped to a chair, a mask full of whirring blades slowly dropping toward his face.
Don’t worry, we cut away before we see anything too bloody. Mike Schmidt (Josh Hutcherson), the film’s protagonist, is a down-on-his-luck sort trying to care for his (much?) younger sister, Abby (Piper Rubio). Punishing himself for having failed to stop the kidnapping of a younger brother years ago, Mike is about to lose custody of Abby to wicked Aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson). As part of a last-ditch effort to get his life together, Mike accepts William Afton’s (Matthew Lillard) offer of a night watchman position at the abandoned Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza.
The whole endeavor is very strange: Five Nights at Freddy’s almost feels uninterested in seeing giant animatronics do violence to the just and unjust alike, taking more than 40 minutes to get to the first big action set piece. Instead, we get rivers of backstory and personal entanglements, all wrapped up in an unduly convoluted mystery that nevertheless resolves in an incredibly perfunctory way. As a bonus, we get some unintentionally funny lines like “Abs, you know we used to have a brother, right?” and “You can do whatever you want with your own life, but if you ever bring Abby back here again I will shoot you.” (That last one is doubly humorous since it was delivered by a cop.)
Catch all of Sonny’s reviews by signing up for a free or paid Bulwark subscription. (Subscribe for a year today and get 20% off.)
So: the pacing is bad, the plotting is both convoluted and also somehow weirdly shallow, the writing is laughable, and the action is simplistic. I would not recommend seeing Five Nights at Freddy’s, as it is not good. My opinion, and those of all other critics, is meaningless: the film grossed $80 million in its opening weekend and an A-minus from CinemaScore audiences. It is as critic-proof as a film can get.
ON A PURELY AESTHETIC LEVEL, David Fincher’s new mystery-thriller The Killer is the diametric opposite of Five Nights at Freddy’s.
Whereas Freddy’s framing and lighting is sloppy, The Killer is precise. There were so many moments in FNaF that were simply hard to see thanks to the lack of lighting that I thought my TV might be on the wrong setting. The Killer is similarly dark, but thanks to David Fincher’s maniacal eye for detail and some key costuming choices, it was never hard to make out what was happening even when the titular killer (Michael Fassbender) was, say, doing hand-to-hand combat with a mountainous Floridian in the creatine-soaked monster’s unlit beachfront home.
Whereas Freddy’s scares are bloodless and predicated on unexpected imagery popping into our field of view to make us jump, the violence in The Killer is meticulously laid out and not entirely unexpected and all the more devastating as a result. At one point, The Killer is trying to extract information from a lawyer named Hodges (Charles Parnell)—he arranges The Killer’s hits and is forced to “tidy” things up when The Killer fails to pull off a job in the film’s opening moments, leading to The Killer’s mission of cool vengeance—and we see him accumulate implements like a nail gun and trash bags, then tie Hodges to a chair, then pull out the nail gun, then calmly apply the nail gun to the lawyer’s chest, then sink some spikes into it in rapid succession. This is all done coolly, almost clinically, The Killer’s detachment demonstrating his professionalism even as his plan almost immediately goes sideways when the man drowns in his own blood long before The Killer believes it will happen.
Whereas Freddy’s actors all seem to be in slightly different movies—Hutcherson attempting earnest pathos; Lillard going high camp; Masterson in a children’s comedy—everyone in The Killer is working on roughly the same emotionally distanced level. Fassbender and Parnell are dynamite in their sort of clipped annoyance, but the standout scene comes near the end when The Killer sits down across from The Expert (Tilda Swinton). The two assassins share a drink and then get down to business, philosophizing all the while.
The Killer might be described as anti-philosophical, at least in the sense that The Killer is constantly undercutting his own self-important mental blather. We hear koans in voiceover narration like “Forbid empathy” and “Stick to the plan” and “Anticipate, don’t improvise” and “Fight only the battle you’re paid to fight,” all of which go by the wayside in short order. Frankly, it’s the sort of movie I’d like to read before watching again, just to see how the narrative cuts against itself. One imagines Fincher might see this picture as a sort of rebuttal to the people who treat his Fight Club as a how-to manual (to the extent he cares about those dullards at all). Needless to say, philosophy is not high up on the priorities of Five Nights at Freddy’s.
IN SHORT, THE KILLER IS DIFFERENT, and better, in virtually every way. But there is one key way in which these two movies are at least similar, and that’s how they’re being released. Both were made for streaming services and both are getting a theatrical release. While Five Nights at Freddy’s went wide—debuting on more than 3,600 screens this weekend—The Killer did not, with Netflix dumping it onto a few hundred screens scattered around the country. Most of you likely won’t be able to see it until it hits Netflix next Friday.
As a film lover and a lover of the theatrical experience writ large, I feel like this is the best possible outcome. It’s great that younger audiences—and it is almost exclusively younger audiences, as something like three-quarters of ticket buyers were between the ages of 13 and 24 on opening night—headed out to theaters, and it’s a handy reminder to studios that there’s no better way to earn a lot of money in a little time than a big opening weekend. And Netflix’s strategy for The Killer feels … sound. Sure, I’d prefer if it had gotten a proper 2,000-screen release so more folks could experience Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s sound design in a real theater with a real sound system, but this was never going to be a box office monster and the advertising costs associated with a 2,000-screen release aren’t small.
Studios are still trying to figure out how, precisely, to calibrate theatrical release strategies in a streaming-first world, and these two movies seem pretty well calibrated. I’m glad I got to see David Fincher’s latest on a big screen with big sound, but I hold no illusions about its appeal to mass audiences. And I’m, honestly, kind of glad I was able to avoid the teenage masses and watch Five Nights at Freddy’s at home. As far as balancing acts go, last weekend seems to have more or less struck the right one. We’ll see if studios are able to stick to the plan going forward.