*this post is updated to include Gone Girl
David Fincher’s new film, Gone Girl, opens this weekend. The film has received immense buzz in part because of the controversial nature of its source material, Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, but also because of the nature of the director himself. Fincher has proven a difficult director to pin down, and his films have likewise been divisive. He works in the studio system with Hollywood stars, but in this era of earnestness and heroism, Fincher’s films challenge our notions of Typical Hollywood Movies. He is a gifted visual director whose films often leave audiences cold and discomfited. Gone Girl is likely to do both of these things.
Which makes this an apt time to consider the work of the director. To look back at his career and shape a notion of what kind of artist–and I am now convinced he is a truly brilliant artist, heir to the throne of Stanley Kubrick–he is. Below is a list of David Fincher’s 9 films, presented from worst to best, considered biographically and artistically.
The Trial By Fire
By the time that David Fincher began his career in feature films, he was already a technically proficient if clinically detached director. For many, these traits have come to define his work: clinical, emotionally distant storytelling directed with a slick, if not beautiful sheen. The foundation of which is evident in his first film, Alien³.
It’s not hard to see why Fincher might have been interested in making an installment in the Alien series. Ridley Scott’s Alien is a clear influence on Fincher’s artistic choices–one that in tone and visual style can be felt in every Fincher film. And the thematic elements of Alien³–the mental effects of isolation and the inflection of domestic life with horror and violence–are a regular feature in Fincher’s career.
Still, Alien³ is not a good film. Fincher had a vision for his installment in the series, focusing on a near-middle-age woman trapped in space, pushing the alien itself into the background. But as a first-time director he was not allowed the freedom to bring it to light. Instead, the movie was plagued with script re-writes and constant studio interference. The end result is a mash-up of the occasional powerful image and inspired scene in the midst of a clear overall failure.
It didn’t take long after the film’s release for David Fincher himself to write-off the movie. In 1993, he’d give a candid interview (see below) about the terrible experience he had on the film, and 10 years later his feelings on the film had not changed: “I had to work on it for two years, got fired off it three times and I had to fight for every single thing. No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.” Fincher learned what would become the most important lesson of his career on Alien³ in a “trial by fire,” he called it: That the studio does not know how to make a movie, nor do they care about making a quality film. Henceforth, Fincher would be in control of every aspect of the films he made. His reputation today lives up to this claim.
Alien³ was re-cut in 2003 for the release of the DVD collection of the Alien Quadrilogy. This Assembly Cut is a significant improvement (though the film remains quite a mess), and has claimed a cult status among many fans.
**Interesting Fincher Career Note: He told BBC’s Mark Burman in 1993 that the Ridley Scott’s Alien was first time he “was aware of being told things about people and story through the art direction rather than exposition.” It’s hard to imagine a more succinct expression of influence on the early films of David Fincher, which are easily recognizable as directorial expressions of tone, lighting, and art direction as a way to tell a story in lieu of exposition.
The out of Character Awards Show Fodder
9. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
2008, written by Eric Roth
The line on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is that it is Awards Season Bait. It’s a shiny 2 hour 45 minute film starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, written by Eric Roth, the Oscar-winning writer of Forrest Gump.
This line is correct. Benjamin Button may well be the most handsome film David Fincher has ever made. But what makes a great David Fincher Film is not that it is handsomely made (they all are) but that it it contains in its handsome facade an undercurrent of anxiety and fear and violence and satire and scathing social disorder. None of this is present in Benjamin Button. Benjamin Button is just a nice-looking, well-acted, awards season film. The Fincher precision is evident in the construction of this film, but that effort is lost on the result.
Given the bizarre premise of the film, an old man is born a baby and ages backwards through life (it’s based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story of the same name), and given that it was being directed by an artist with such a singular and unique visual and storytelling style, many were taken back by just how familiar and traditional a film Benjamin Button turned out to be. It is meticulously crafted, stunning in its design and completely unoriginal.
In one regard this line of criticism fails. Button is wizardry in the realm of special effects. Fincher’s films pre-Button used CGI liberally but were never defined by CGI. But the very concept of this project requires CGI for almost every shot in which Brad Pitt is in frame. As a visual accomplishment, the aging of Pitt’s body is stunning, and likely a major contributor to the Button’s Oscar win for Best Art Direction. If anyone doubted Fincher’s ability to use art direction as a medium for story telling, Button lays those doubts to rest.
**Interesting Fincher Career Note: The start of Fincher’s career in the film industry was not in music videos but working for George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic. He fell into the role as a 20-year old kid who got the job of a lifetime, working as a cameraman for Return of the Jedi. He later did matte photography for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The NeverEnding Story. He knows a thing or two about visual effects.
8. Panic Room
2002, written by David Koepp
Panic Room is an experiment in craft. A mother and her daughter are trapped in their human-size safe, while three intruders attempt to enter. It’s a cat-and-mouse thriller of little consequence. Which isn’t to say that it is ineffective. Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart more than provide the emotional heft to hook audiences, and the criminals on the outside, particularly Jared Leto, make for an engaging tete-a-tete.
But the real purpose of Panic Room is in its composition. One occasionally hears that Fincher’s work is all style and no substance, and if that’s true it is never more true than in Panic Room. Here it seems Fincher is just having fun. Letting his technical virtuosity run free, Fincher’s cinematographic technique in the film is that of an omniscient camera, moving freely, unbound by characters, perspective, or physics.
The seamless marriage of physical camera-work with CGI is among Fincher’s favorite technical maneuvers, one that would become subtle yet defining in Benjamin Button. In one shot, Fincher’s camera starts in an upstairs bedroom and cranes down the stairs, through the railing, through the handle of a tea-kettle, into a key-hole that denies entry before retreating all the way back upstairs.
In another, the camera parks itself in the solid space between walls, as it watches two simultaneous activities in separate spaces.
Many of the visual and direction choices in Panic Room are reminiscent of those in Fincher’s previous film Fight Club, but here they are allowed the to take center stage, as the many layers of Fight Club are dropped for what is Fincher’s most simple plot. Which is fine since plots have never been the central driving force of a Fincher story anyway.
Still, by Panic Room, some of the persistent themes of Fincher’s films have started to draw themselves to the surface. One of which is that his characters are often plagued with psychological torments and are given to fear and compulsive obsessive behavior. To make the most of this Fincher often builds his films around psychological gamesmanship. The search for and revelation of information, whether the hidden nature of truth or the unraveling of personal history or planted riddles, were all seen prior to Panic Room, but here they take on a literal sense, embodied by human beings locked away in a safe.
**Meta Theology question inspired by Fincher: Can God make a safe so secure that God himself could not open it? As the compulsive experiment of an obsessive perfectionist, Fincher sets about to create an un-crackable safe, only to set about cracking it himself.
I find it hard to avoid medical terms when discussing Fincher’s direction–clinical, surgical, antiseptic. These words are used almost always as pejoratives: they indicate an obsessive quality combined with a lack of care, a distancing from emotion, talent without heart. Over-produced and overwrought are words that accompany medical modifiers. And while sometimes this is true of artists, it sells short the skill that is required in being an obsessive technical storyteller. I do not believe that Fincher’s purpose has ever been to keep his audience from feeling. It is (Benjamin Button notwithstanding) to make his audiences feel something they’d rather avoid.
Audiences want to be won over, to be charmed, to find likable men and women and accompany them in stories that move from bad things to good things. These feelings are evoked in the traditional Hollywood narrative. The next five films on this list will eschew that narrative for something much more unsettling. The emotional experience that a great David Fincher film leaves audiences with is not reconciliation or love or heroism, but isolation, anxiety and discomfort.
Which brings us to The Game.
In The Game Fincher solidified the central setting for his films: deep inside the brains of the audience. If psychological gamesmanship is present in the stories he tells–it is the only subject of The Game–it is also the desired result for the audience. Unsettling audiences is a very different goal from winning them over. Fincher is not a director interested in winning over his viewers. If that was not proven in Seven, it would be in The Game.
The Game, in this movie, is a literal game being played with the mind of Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas). He is rich, his life is organized. For a birthday present, his brother (Sean Penn) signs him up for a program run by Consumer Recreation Services. Playing the game means that Van Orton’s life falls into chaos. Little things start to go wrong, then big things. Then his life completely collapses. Is this all part of the program or has his life really been led to disaster? Is the Game destroying to rebuild the mind of the subject or leading him to his own death?
“Smart” is a word that one often hears in conjunction with The Game. It is designed like a puzzle, a thriller to be experienced and pieced back together in the end. And like many such films, the ending of The Game is highly controversial. The end of The Game is a trap, one that viewers either love or hate. But however one feels about it, it is not a comfort to experience.
**Interesting Film-to-Career Extrapolation: When Van Orton signs up for the Game, he is told by the promotional material that it will “make his life fun again.” This is one of the best jokes (there aren’t a lot of jokes) in any David Fincher film, and one that must bring a smile to Fincher in the moment. Have your life dissected, dipped in chaos, led to the precipice of death and your sanity dangling by a thread. You know, for FUN!
1995, written by Andrew Kevin Walker
Seven was the second film directed by Fincher but in many ways it is the first time that audiences met the David Fincher who would become Hollywood’s Studio Auteur. The film established the visual palette that remains with him 20 years later. It also introduced many of the most significant thematic concerns of the stories he tells: misanthropy and isolation, psychological games, compulsiveness and obsession, the impulse for and seductive horrors of human violence, serial killers, and the search for absent information (to name a few). His settings are frequently influenced by the detective and noir stylings of the past, and his color palette and use of lighting and shadows matches that well. Both are present–if not too much so–in Seven.
Seven also revealed the clinical manner in which Fincher would direct his films, and the deliberate formal decision-making process that would define him going forward. His reputation as a master of technical achievement comes from this impulse: to obsessive over every frame, every take, until he saw what leaves audiences susceptible to unexpected trauma.
In Seven this plays out as a study in evil. Two detectives solving a puzzle perpetuated by a murderous unknown villain. The Los Angeles of Seven is one of constant rain. The detectives use flashlights in the daytime in crime scenes of such horror they can scarcely be believed. They read Dante and visit libraries as they are toyed with by a character who would be a monster in a genre film but here is just a man.
While Seven is an effective detective neo-noir thriller, it’s clear that the film was directed by an artist who was still finding his footing. Re-watching Seven today one finds a director relying on tone and feeling through visual stylization, rather than pulling deeper into those elements to draw out even more complexity than is allowed in his “evil is evil” conclusion. This year, in an interview with Playboy, Fincher said that were he to direct the film today he would “try to have a lot more fun.”
**Interesting Fincher Career Note: Seven marks two important firsts in Fincher’s career. It is the first serial-killer/detective movie that Fincher made, something that has become synonymous with the director (Fincher said that no one can write a script about a serial killer without it being sent to him for a read. “I don’t have a choice,” he said). Seven is also the first time the director worked with Brad Pitt. In the same interview, Fincher said he offers everything to Pitt, “not because I’m pathetic but because he’s good for so many things.”
The Top Tier
5. Gone Girl
Gone Girl doesn’t make sense as a drama. It does not reflect our world, nor does it pretend to be a portrait of a real marriage. What kind of movie is it? It lives instead in the interconnecting lines of movie history. The pulses sent from Gone Girl did not reach out to other difficult domestic dramas exploring marriage and the darker instincts of human psyche, like Revolutionary Road.
They shot instead towards Under the Skin and The Shining. I cannot shake the comparison of Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne to that of Scarlett Johansson in Jonathon Glazer’s Under the Skin. That too is a “difficult movie to watch;” a story of violence in a fantasy world that resembles our own. It stars a woman who has little to no motive for her action. Under the Skin resembles Gone Girlless in story than in the visual and emotional construction. What befalls the women in these movies is not similar, but the spirit of the both performance and direction provides a valuable analog.
Film is a conversation and few participants are more eager to interact than David Fincher.
The images that pass on-screen in a David Fincher film are a lesson not only in how to craft a movie, but how to do so in dialogue with the history of the art form itself.
4. Social Network
2010, written by Aaron Sorkin
“You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”
This is what Rooney Mara says to Jesse Eisenberg in the opening scene of The Social Network. Mark Zuckerburg is dumped by his girlfriend, and to get back at her, he creates Facebook. The line is delivered in a rapid-fire scene, establishing what we knew going in to the film: Aaron Sorkin wrote this script.
One sticking point that sometimes arises in conversations about David Fincher is the fact that he is not a Writer-Director. He is “only” a director, be it one who obsessively controls every aspect of the film-making process. When we talk about the great auteurs of cinema, we often consider the men (they are usually men) who write their own films. Not only does Fincher not write his movies, but he does not have a “partner” with whom he works. Each Fincher film has been written by a different screenwriter.
What this criticism speaks to, in my mind, is the difficulty that comes with pinning down what it means to define a “David Fincher Movie”. When I asked a friend of mine what his favorite David Fincher film was, he said, “The Social Network. It’s the least Fincher-esque, but his best.” I think Fincher-esque is what I’ve been trying to pin down in this list, exploring the body of Fincher’s work and making thematic and artistic connections. But one thing that this project has made clear is that, by not writing, by working in adaptations and stories created by others, Fincher has made Fincher-esque very hard to pin down. This is never more clear than with The Social Network.
Aaron Sorkin has his own -esque to deal with. He writes a very certain type of dialogue, and when you ask anyone about Sorkin, it is the Sorkin-esque dialogue that comes to mind. No other Fincher film feels like The Social Network, because no other one was written by Aaron Sorkin. Is this a testament to David Fincher? Or a break from what qualities we might call Fincher-esque? Probably both.
There’s no murder, no mayhem or chaos of violence in The Social Network. Perhaps that’s what my friend meant about this film not being Fincher-esque. But the story is one of compulsion and obsession. Of the moral consequences of our decisions and the chaos that accompanies living our daily lives. That the central character is a billionaire 25-year-old who also is one of the world’s most famous people adds a taste of irony and humor–rare qualities in Fincher’s work. I read somewhere that Fincher described himself as “not an easy person to like,” and there’s an easy connection to make here with the movie version of Zuckerburg. Few people in The Social Network are easy to like, and even in this story of rich college kids and their grudges, Fincher complicates the notion of good guys and bad guys as he so easily can.
The Social Network builds from the CGI work Fincher used in Button. One of the most satisfying elements of The Social Network comes from watching Armie Hammer play both of the Winklevoss twins. The decision to cast one actor in both roles was not, strictly speaking, necessary, and it surely added difficulty to the shoot. But the rewards, for many probably unnoticed, are palpable.
I would be remiss not to mention a crucial addition to the Fincher team that began with The Social Network, and that is Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor coming on to score the film. Music has always been an integral piece of Fincher–the interactive nature of sound and score in his films is another quality that notes his capacity as a craftsman–but it took on new heights with Reznor and Ross. The two won an Oscar for their work here, and have worked on all of Fincher’s film since.
**Interesting Fincher Career Note: One point that Fincher considers when choosing scripts to direct is what they say about his brand. Or rather, how they cut against branding. He told FincherFanatic (pdf): “I work hard to fight against whatever my brand is. I would like my brand to stand for ‘works really hard’, ‘tries to make it as good as he possibly can’. If the brand is, ‘it’s gonna be dark and grainy,’ I have no interest in that. It’s just too reductive. It’s just too stupid.”
3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
2011, written by Steven Zaillian
The Swedish title of Stieg Larson’s novel is not The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but rather Men Who Hate Women. While the original title may have less romance, it is without question more appropriate. This is a story that is hard. It is about sexual violence, rape, revenge, and the search for both facts and truth (not the same, of course) in a decades old family tragedy. The very popular novels had previously been adapted into a trilogy of films in Sweden, and the appetite for an American remake of the story was low, if non-existent. And yet, in the oeuvre of David Fincher, it is his most electrifying film since Fight Club.
The film could hardly be more perfectly executed. There are only so many times that one can write about Fincher’s execution and technical prowess. But I can think of almost no film in recent years (perhaps The Master, but I found that less satisfying) which is more restrained in its individual component parts, but whose parts add up to so much more than they should. Dragon Tattoo is the third pairing of Fincher with cinematographer Jeff Cronenworth (who also shot Gone Girl) and the duo reach a new level here for Fincher’s work.
The editing, the sound-design, the score from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, it is all–I’m trying not to be hyperbolic–purposed, intentional, perfect. For those interested, I recommend critic Jim Emerson on the sound-editing and photography, hwo claims that “Fincher is one of the most precise filmmakers (some would call him obsessively finicky) since Kubrick.”
Kubrick comparisons abound in Fincher criticism, for very good reason.
Rather than search for superlatives on the direction of Dragon Tattoo, I’d rather like to stop and mention Rooney Mara. Rooney Mara’s performance as Lisbeth Salander is the best in any David Fincher film. This may be in part because Salander, a loner with psychological issues and a traumatic past, is suited well to the Fincher aesthetic. But it is also because Rooney Mara contains so much power in her body and language. She is photographed and presented in such a way as to demand the viewers eye whenever she is on-screen, and Mara rewards audiences by delivering a Brando-like performance, unflinchingly raw and commanding. It is my favorite performance of the decade, and one you should see.
The subject matter in this picture is the darkest since Seven, an investigation of evil as evil. And like Seven, it features two protagonists searching for the details of history in order to find a murderous, yet distinctly human, villain. Some found the film to be so emotionally disconnected as to be nearly impenetrable, but this reading misses the entire value of the project. It is, rather, a Kubrick-ian construction: looking at something un-explainable and preserving it intact while making it approachable without danger.
As a Hollywood Movie this is as brutal as it gets. Dragon Tattoo is like an ice-sculpture. Fragile, icy, and beautiful.
**Interesting Fincher Career Note: David Fincher’s reputation for shooting multiple takes is the stuff of Hollywood Legend. Again, in this way he is very like Stanley Kubrick: both maintain reputations for requiring dozens of retakes, demanding perfection from actors with a strategy that many find unworkable. Word is he shot an average of 50 takes per scene for Gone Girl. If anyone has room to complain, it is Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg, who had to re-shoot their opening 8-page scene in Social Network “about 99 times.” Luckily Mara was not turned off by Fincher and returned as Lisbeth Salander.
2007, written by James Vanderbilt
David Fincher has never been shy in his interviews. He is a Hollywood director who works in the studio system, but he has found success enough that he only makes films he wants to make, and he maintains total control over the work he undertakes. In 2011, Fincher made a candid remark about how he considers his work.
Fincher divides his work between “movies” and “films”—by his definition, a movie is overtly commercial, engineered for the sole pleasure of the audience. A film is conceived for the public and filmmakers: It is more audacious, more daring. By his reckoning, Fight Club and, especially, Zodiac (neither of which were box office successes) are films.
This delineation is quite strict and I think undervalues the richness of some of Fincher’s work (in researching this piece it has become clear that no one is more critical of David Fincher’s work than he). But it’s worth noting that the two films he names as “films” are the two that top this countdown. Zodiac is a “serious movie” about “serious subject matter.” It is a long, slow, detailed procedural and murder mystery that has very little movement and yet grips audiences from the start.
What separates Zodiac from the other serial-killer and noir detective stories in Fincher’s catalog is that there is no dramatic conclusion or revelation. No John Doe from Seven appears to complicate the nature of humanity and evil. No twists, no psychological games unfold. The film maintains one of Fincher’s chief interests–the physical, obsessive search for facts and truth–and in the end, only the protagonists is rewarded for his efforts.
Zodiac has been called David Fincher’s “passion project” and watching it, one certainly gets the feeling that it is the film that he labored over, and obsessed over, more than any other. He painstakingly recreated each murder scene through the police reports and newspaper clippings from the time, and every detail in every frame speaks to the labor involved. This is fitting given that the subject of the film is itself obsession. An obsessive killer, and obsessed man dedicated to researching and solving the mystery of the Zodiac Killer. That obsession, of David Fincher the director and the Zodiac Killer and Jake Gyllenhaal’s character make Zodiac a truly unique and special film.
Even if making it was a bit of a nightmare . Talking about Zodiac in 2007, Jake Gyllenhaal mentioned the difficulty he had working with Fincher, especially regarding the number of takes the director required. Fincher told the NY Times that the reason he uses so many takes when filming his movies is to remove all earnestness from his actors’ performances. “I hate earnestness in performance,” he said. In the same interview, Robert Downey Jr. was asked about this process. He said, “I think I’m a perfect person to work for him, because I understand gulags.” Downey Jr. added, “Ultimately film-making is a director’s medium.”
**Interesting Fincher Career Note: In interview with Empire in 2008, Fincher listed his favorite movies. The list is long and filled with classics. Film, like all art, is a conversation between art objects. Fincher’s desire to avoid a brand is obvious not only in his own work, but those he considers his influences.
1. Fight Club
1999, written by Jim Uhls
Here is how Roger Ebert described Fight Club: “Cheerfully fascist…The sex movie Hollywood has been moving toward for years, in which eroticism between the sexes is replaced by all-guy locker-room fights.”
In the 15 years since its release, Fight Club has become all things to all people. It is a symbol of the corrupting power of Hollywood. It is a testament to the machismo and misogyny of modern male psyche. It is a scathing rebuke of capitalism. A black-comedy tearing down everything it pretends to be built on. A deeply philosophical Marxist story about the perils of consumerism. Arm-chair philosophizing full of freshman-level platitudes. Maschostic and sick. Powerful and empowering.
I would say, to these descriptions: You’re right. Part of what makes Fight Club Fincher’s best film is the complicated, layered nature of its construction.
And yet we try always to boil things down. So, here’s what I think Fight Club is: a fairy-tale romance about a man who is willing to destroy the world in the name of love. When I think of stories that are analogs to FIght Club I think of movies like Pan’s Labyrinth, or The Princess Bride, or the Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Adult fairy-tales, built on humor but designed to cut the legs out of the world’s they inhabit.
At the end of the day, when all the mayhem concludes, the fights are over and the social-commentary ends and the plot-twists are revealed, Fight Club is, miraculously, a Hollywood Love Story. Made by a Hollywood Director, with Hollywood Stars. It is (without question) the most romantic film Fincher has ever made.
But let’s walk through it a little, because a film this rich, and yet as easily discarded as Fight Club has been, deserves it.
Fight Club is a film about embracing masculinity, especially through violence.
It is also a scathing critique of the modern macho man,
Like Seven and The Game, it is a psychological thriller with a twist-ending.
But one that uses that structure to higher purpose.
It is a comedy, and it is a very funny one.
It pretends at philosophical depth,
And it mocks itself for doing so.
It also has actual emotional resonance,
prods viewers in ways that indict our pleasures,
And goes out of its way to make viewers uncomfortable
If Fincher is a film-maker who works hard to maintain a malleable identity, Fight Club is his crowning achievement. All of the thematic elements of the Fincher artistic vision are present in Fight Club, but so too is the heart and emotional interaction that so many audiences long for in his work. When Marla arrives in the brain of Jack as his spirit animal, we can not only feel the humor of her presence in the ice-cave (note: ice and snow are everywhere in Fincher), but also the emotional connectivity of the characters. Their bickering and fighting comes the closest Fincher ever has to a marriage, and that the two end the film hand in hand as the world around them literally collapses, we must stretch our ability to believe that the Kubrickian sculptor of Dragon Tattoo and The Game has been able to reach into the madness and at last find for his conclusion, love.