Director Retrospective: David Fincher
After the mega-sized previous installment on the work of Billy Wilder, I thought that I’d try something a bit easier this time by looking at a director with a smaller filmography and one whose works I’ve seen several times before. Moreover, as it turns out, I also just recently watched the new Netflix show Mindhunter — which I highly recommend — which got me to thinking that I really ought to write one of these retrospectives on the work of David Fincher. [For those who don’t know, Fincher directed several episodes of the aforementioned TV show and also served as executive producer.] So…here we go…
The Big List
So far, I’ve watched all 10 feature-length films by David Fincher. Here’s the list: Alien 3 (1992); Se7en (1995); The Game (1997); Fight Club (1999); Panic Room (2002); Zodiac (2007); The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008); The Social Network (2010); The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011); Gone Girl (2014).
The Top Five
Zodiac (2007) – Not only is Zodiac David Fincher’s best film by a country-mile, I am thoroughly convinced that it’s one of the best films of the 21st Century. [The fact that Zodiac received ZERO (!!!) Academy Award nominations upon its release is just absurd and, in retrospect, is one of the all-time blunders on the their part.] As one can guess from the title, Zodiac explores the events surrounding the spate of killings in California from the mid-1960s to the early-1970s in which the perpetrator(s) periodically taunted police, corresponded with news agencies, and made several unorthodox threats/claims. Moreover, the film is mostly about three men — i.e. amateur sleuth Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), police detective Dave Toschi (played by Mark Ruffalo), and newspaper journalist Paul Avery (played by Robert Downey Jr.) — who attempt to crack the mystery of the Zodiac killer and the places that their obsessions take them. Fincher does a fantastic job of capturing the 1970s California aesthetic here: the film effortlessly incorporates CGI and the set-design / costuming is superb throughout. And Fincher resists the urge to “solve” the murder; in fact, he purposefully used different actors for the various Zodiac reenactments so that even the audience would never know for certain who the killer was. In terms of performances, the aforementioned Gyllenhaal, Ruffalo, and Downey Jr. are all very good in their roles; however, this is a film that I always enjoy most for the supporting cast: Anthony Edwards, Chloe Sevigny, Brian Cox, Philip Baker Hall, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney, Donal Logue, Zach Grenier, Charles Fleischer, etc. etc. etc. [It’s basically a “Who’s Who” of fantastic character actors here, and they’re all wonderful in the film.] Zodiac also features two of my absolute favorite Fincher scenes: one that involves an informal interrogation and another involving a movie-poster’s typescript. A brilliant, brilliant movie — easily one of the greatest true-crime films ever made and a legitimate “masterpiece” in my book.
The Social Network (2010) – What happens when you combine a perfectionist director (David Fincher), an actor with nervous energy (Jesse Eisenberg), a talky and narcissistic screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin), and a famous anti-social social-media mogul (Mark Zuckerberg)? Well…you get The Social Network — one of Fincher’s best movies to date. To be honest, although I was already a big fan of Fincher’s by 2010, I wasn’t excited to view this movie, as I couldn’t really conceive how a film about a social-media platform could be very interesting. Of course, The Social Network isn’t really about Facebook so much as what it represents, i.e. both the people behind it and the society in which it would flourish. Typically, I’m not much of a fan of Eisenberg as an actor — he’s usually (but not always) my least favorite contributor in most films — but he excels in this role. He isn’t trying to imitate Zuckerberg so much as he’s trying to capture the kind of private and guarded person who would (obviously) create such a public and sharing-based community. The rest of the cast is similarly good here — particularly Justin Timberlake (as sleazy Napster founder, Sean Parker) and Andrew Garfield (as Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin). In addition to Fincher’s cold, calculated visual-style, The Social Network is also one of the better films to use character-based CGI — i.e. the Winklevoss twins, who are played by both Armie Hammer and Josh Pence but with Hammer’s face placed on the two characters in post. [Interestingly, that’s an aspect of Fincher’s filmmaking that often goes overlooked: his subtle and consistent use of digital special-effects in his films, perhaps because of his own background at Industrial Light & Magic.] If I’m remembering correctly, The Social Network is also the first Fincher film where Trent Reznor served as the primary composer. While I’m not really a fan of Reznor’s music, he has proven himself to be a very capable film-composer, and his score here is unique, memorable, and effective. Overall, The Social Network is an important film because it captures a technological zeitgeist in a way that’s surprisingly human — exploring notions of (un)worth, betrayal, loneliness, etc. It feels like an important movie for our age, almost a historical document.
Gone Girl (2014) – I had a somewhat difficult time deciding my #3 spot in Fincher’s filmography, as it was more or less a coin-flip between two films (this one and the film in my #4 spot). While I think that the latter film is, personally, more re-watchable, I do think that this film — Gone Girl — is the more mature and more fully realized effort, which is why it got the nod here. Based on the Gillian Flynn novel (which I haven’t read), Gone Girl details a seemingly perfect couple that experiences unexpected tragedy when the wife, Amy Dunne, suddenly vanishes; however, as police begin to investigate the crime, it becomes apparent that not everything was a “perfect” as it first appeared, leaving the husband, Nick Dunne, as the prime suspect in Amy’s disappearance and possible murder. Without going into *spoiler* territory, this is really a film of two parts: the first-half establishes the mystery and the second-half explores what happened (and how and why). Ben Affleck (as Nick Dunne) does solid work here, but this movie definitely belongs to Rosamund Pike (as Amy Dunne) who absolutely owns her role and brings to life one of the more memorable characters in recent film. [Personally, I think that Pike probably should have won the “Best Actress” Academy Award that year. She’s absolutely mesmerizing in this movie, and her performance really takes the viewer on an emotional roller-coaster.] Interestingly, as good as the leads are here, this is another Fincher film where the supporting cast really shines — notably, the always underrated Kim Dickens, the very against-type Neil Patrick Harris, and the surprisingly low-key Tyler Perry. Gone Girl features some of Fincher’s most shocking visuals, and he frames things in such a manner that our interpretations of the characters change with a second viewing. Aside from being another murder-mystery type film in Fincher’s canon (i.e. the genre that he seems particularly attracted to and capable with), Gone Girl feels a little more satirical in its aims as well, exploring our society’s recurring fascination with the “missing (white) woman” and turning that on its head a bit.
Se7en (1995) – For many audiences, Fincher’s second feature-length film, Se7en, was their first (and, therefore, most memorable) exposure to the director’s early work. From the opening credits that establish a creepy, grimy, industrial type tone to the modus-operandi of its serial killer to the “twist” at the movie’s conclusion, Se7en is a movie that hooks you in and keeps you engaged throughout — not necessarily an easy task given the subject-matter and the disturbing visuals throughout. Tracking a murder who uses the Biblical “seven deadly sins” as his motivation and who seems to take pleasure in toying with the police, retiring Det. Somerset and green Det. Mills attempt to capture this mysterious “John Doe” killer before he can strike again. Both Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt provide good performances here and their respective energies really compliment one another well. [While Brad Pitt did give us the overacted meme-worthy “What’s in the box?!?” moment, perhaps we can forgive him since he acted through an onset injury that he sustained in filming, when he hurt his hand…like…bad.] The film also features some solid supporting performances from Gwyneth Paltrow, R. Lee Ermey, and (the now-disgraced) Kevin Spacey. [1995 was a very, very good year for Spacey as he was in both Se7en and in Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects — two films that went a long way in helping his career.] Still, the strength of the film rests in its production values. Visually, it relies a lot on darkness (apparently achieved through a specific film-stock processing) and rain. Lots and lots and lots of rain. Like the most rain ever in a movie, or at least it feels that way. But it all gives the movie a very distressed feel, perfect for the story. And when you add in Rob Bottin’s practical effects — i.e. the special-effects guru behind John Carpenter’s The Thing — and Fincher’s own obsessive and perfectionist qualities (which included having the production staff actually write all those creepy John Doe notebooks), you get a neo-noir type film that ingrains itself into your memory.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) – Based on the novel by Stieg Larsson, David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo often gets lumped into the conversation of adapting recent foreign-films for American audiences. After all, Fincher’s version came out only a couple years after the original 2009 Swedish version — a version that was actually pretty readily available already here in the U.S. Having seen both the original Swedish version and the English remake version, I think it’s a little reductive — and in this case incorrect — to simply assume that an original is always superior to the remake. [The original version starring Noomi Rapace and the late Michael Nyqvist is a very solid film; however, I do feel that Fincher’s version is better overall and more memorable.] Featuring some very good performances from Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Stellan Skarsgard, Christopher Plummer, and Robin Wright, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an effectively creepy and disturbing murder-mystery. Mara’s Lisbeth Salander and Craig’s Mikael Blomkvist feel a bit more fleshed-out here and their “romance” (although that isn’t quite the right word here) feels believable in a way that it didn’t quite in the original. Moreover, Skarsgard really shines here, oozing with menace (and Enya). Still, the most impressive aspect is certainly, as one might expect, the visual elements of Fincher’s film. Here, his penchant for washed-out color — which, in my opinion, gives the visuals a kind of coolness and flatness — seems pitch-perfect for the harsh Swedish winter landscape, resulting in a film that legitimately feels cold and dark by virtue of its visuals. One of the director’s “prettiest” films, despite its disturbing nature.
The Underrated One
I actually think that most of David Fincher’s work is appropriately rated — i.e. he’s generally accepted as one of the best directors working today. As mentioned above, Zodiac was hilariously critically underrated upon its release, though it’s since garnered the reputation that it always deserved. Moreover, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo never really clicked with audiences and, as a result of that and some recurring development delays, the project just sorta died on the vine — although it seems that the sequel has finally gotten the greenlight (just without Fincher, Rooney Mara, or Daniel Craig). But my pick for Fincher’s “Most Underrated” is The Game (1997). To some degree, I think this film was forgotten in part because of its location within his oeuvre, nestled between two films (Se7en and Fight Club) that latched onto the public consciousness and, therefore, pushed the “middle-child” (The Game) into afterthought. The story focuses on a selfish, unlikable millionaire who receives a birthday gift from his ne’er-do-well younger brother: an invitation into a real-life adventure “game” of sorts run by a secret corporation that caters to the wealthy. However, the “game” begins to turn dangerous and deadly, leaving the player unsure what’s real and what isn’t. The cast here is strong with its mix of recognizable names and character actors — e.g. Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Unger, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and James Rebhorn. If you think too much / too hard about the events within the film, it doesn’t quite hold up to the scrutiny; however, if you just roll with it, The Game is an interesting and engaging film — full of some genuinely great visuals (including a really creepy clown doll) and some nice tension/suspense. This feels like the most “Hitchcockian” work in Fincher’s filmography.
The One to Avoid
Some of you out there are probably thinking that I’m going with Alien 3 here. After all, it’s a much-maligned nihilistic film that set the series down a dark path by killing EVERYONE you ever cared about and featuring some pretty crappy CGI effects (even for the time). But nope…even though Fincher has disowned the movie and refuses to talk about it in interviews, I think that I sorta kinda might like that movie. (Come at me, y’all!) [Seriously though, if you’ve never read about the production problems with Alien 3, get thee to a library / computer and read all about it. It sounded like the movie-project from hell, and I’m amazed Fincher ever made another film afterwards.] So, what are my other options? Well…I think that Fight Club is slightly overrated — though I do think it’s a movie better than its most hardcore fans, if that makes sense. And Panic Room, while a decent enough flick with some good actors and nifty camera movements, is mostly forgettable. But for me, the “winner” in this category is definitely The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). I actually don’t think that Benjamin Button is a “bad” movie — in fact, I don’t think Fincher has made a truly “bad” movie yet in his career. [Honestly, it was a bit of a coin-flip between this and Panic Room for the “worst” Fincher film.] But, ultimately, I like my Fincher flicks to be dark, disturbing, and creepy; and that’s just not Benjamin Button. Yes…it is depressing at times and there are sad, complex personal relationship things going on here; but, in the end, Benjamin gets to experience a lot of adventure in life and his love for Daisy is returned and they have a child, etc. etc. etc. in a happy(ish) resolution of sorts. While Benjamin Button does have arguably my favorite “action” scene in all of Fincher’s catalog (i.e. one involving a tug-boat suicide-charging and ramming a Nazi U-Boat), it’s just not the right tone for what I want from a Fincher film and, thus, isn’t all that re-watchable.
The Place to Start
As always, this category will depend on one’s personal tastes and thresholds for certain forms of violence and whatnot. While one could theoretically start with a film like Se7en or Gone Girl (both great films), they’re pretty pretty pretty pretty disturbing. Obviously, I think that Zodiac is Fincher’s best film; however, because of its length and its complex plot over many years and spanning multiple locales, I think it’s probably better for that to be your third or fourth foray into Fincher’s oeuvre. So I’m going off-the-board here picking Fight Club (1999). Yes…as I said in the last category, I think that Fight Club is a bit overrated — mostly because it has a group of die-hard fans who can/will tell you how it’s so great. But I do think that Fight Club is a good film — personally, I’d have it ranked in the #6-#8 range for Fincher — and, while certainly visually quirky and purposefully unreliable, it’s not quite as oppressively dark and dreadful as the director’s other works, while also capturing some of his trademark look / tone, as well as some cultural zeitgeist stuff. Basically…Fight Club feels a bit like mainstream, easy-to-digest Fincher to me (oddly enough) and, thus, seems like a good avenue into entering into his larger film set.
The Final Word
Overall, after watching and thinking about David Fincher’s filmography, I certainly believe that he’s a talented director and, really, an auteur. His films — particularly those from Fight Club on — have a very distinct, instantly recognizable visual-style that he achieves through a mixture of color-saturation, framing, camera movement, CGI usage, tone, etc. For me, he’s easily one of the best working today at his craft; and, perhaps most excitingly from a viewer’s perspective, one feels that, despite his already highly successful career, he may have his best movie still in him waiting to be made. All of this is more remarkable considering just how rocky Fincher’s first directorial experience was. A filmmaker who feels like a “director’s director” of sorts and one who deserves more award recognition from the Academy.