Back to IndieWire

The Films Of David Fincher: A Retrospective

The Films Of David Fincher: A Retrospective

In general, when we pen a retrospective on a director’s oeuvre , we try and save them for when a filmmaker is deep into his career and has a least 15-plus films under his belt. But we’re making an exception here for David Fincher, who is obviously considered to be one of the most estimable modern auteurs working today, in the league of Christopher Nolan, if not higher and generally seems to be destined to have a career that will be looked back on with great admiration and panegyrics if it isn’t already.

Known for his impeccably stylish, technically meticulous and resoundingly tenebrous films that tend to gravitate towards anti-heroes, flawed protagonists and forsaken souls, Fincher’s films are always intensely dark, hyper-detailed, always challenging and never really fit for mass consumption. Yet, with each of his films arriving via a major studio, Fincher’s oeuvre does resonate with a strong contingent of mainstream audiences and “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button” — his most accessible film — earned him the attention of the Academy that ignored his less embraceable, but much better, previous efforts.

The modern horror of his serial killer film ” Se7en” placed him firmly on the map, the anarchic “Fight Club” became a cult-classic basically the day it was released in theaters and the filmmaker has been highly in demand ever since. With “The Social Network” logging into theaters — and having already looked at 5 of his films (and more) that have yet to to the screen — we take a look back on an already impressive body of work that is only growing in stature with each new addition.

The Game” (1997)
“The Game,” the
Twilight Zone”-y thriller about a wealthy businessman (Michael Douglas) who is engaged in an elaborate, possibly nefarious role playing game by his delinquent brother (Sean Penn), is probably David Fincher’s coolest cool-for-coolness-sake pop outing, but also his most hollow. No matter how deeply Fincher wants to connect the material (written by the geniuses that gave us “Terminator 3”) to resonate themes of loss, regret and legacy (since Douglas’ game begins on the anniversary of his father’s suicide), the movie is too slick and polished to be anything more than it is. Thankfully, what it is is a really fun rollercoaster ride, one with plenty of twists and turns and some extremely weird flourishes (like the fact that a large section of the film’s last act takes place in Mexico), anchored by two fine performances by Douglas and Penn (in a role written for Jodie Foster, hence his name – “Connie”). The film is a trifle for sure, with Fincher working comfortably within the flashy boundaries of his music video days and possibly stifled by the resounding critical and commercial approval of “ Se7en,” but it’s hard to fault a movie in which Spike Jonze shows up in the last scene as a concerned EMT technician, because that’s just funny. [C+]

Zodiac” (2007)
Though he was coming off the box-office success of “Panic Room,” David Fincher’s knack for ambitious material didn’t necessarily make him a studio favorite and so it’s no surprise his next effort, a talky, two and a half hour procedural had Paramount scratching their head. Released to a box-office death in the spring of 2007, the film confounded Fincher-heads who expected the serial killer plotline to bring back the flashy, fleshy pleasures of “Se7en” and while it was praised by critics and landed on numerous top 10 lists, by awards season it was unjustly forgotten. While on the surface, an exhaustive retelling of the search for the famed Zodiac killer, the script by James Vanderbilt slowly spins a tale about the toll and cost of obsession as Robert Graysmith’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) fascination with the case turns into a decades-long hunt that never comes to a satisfactory end. A film that is entirely about the journey and not the destination, “Fight Club” fanboys dismissed the film and also failed to notice Fincher’s jaw dropping technical work on the film. Shot digitally, Fincher utilized a staggering number of digital effects to seamlessly and accurately recreate the 1970s San Francisco skyline and neighborhoods with this own obsession going right down to recreating facsimile newspaper in the San Francisco Chronicle offices that had accurate headlines and articles for the era though they were never on camera. It’s no wonder Fincher related to the material. But the technical wonders would be empty if the film wasn’t so fascinating. Vanderbilt does a wonder job of transferring Graysmith’s obsession to the audience, leading down numerous theories, pathways and puzzles that are both compelling and thrilling. Featuring a wonderful, pre-“Iron Man” turn by Robert Downey Jr. as Graysmith’s smoking, drinking, quipping newsroom colleague Paul Avery and solid turns by Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards as cops tasked to the case, “Zodiac” quietly demonstrates that the terror caused by random and senseless acts of violence can resonate for years. [A]

Panic Room” (2002)
It’s probably not surprising that David Fincher’s biggest hit since “Se7en” came with his least cerebral, most straightforward effort, the slick b-movie “Panic Room.” It should be noted that the film faced a major stumbling block when original star Nicole Kidman stepped aside a knee injury attained during the filming of “Moulin Rouge” sidelined her (though you can see some early footage with Kidman on the ridiculously stacked triple disc DVD edition of the film). Luckily, Jodie Foster came in (pregnant too, no less) to save the day and she was probably a better choice for the desperate, tough as nails mother who has to protect herself and her daughter when home invaders crash the posh Upper West Side home they’ve just purchased. If the single-setting film is pure Hitchcock, then so is the Macguffin; an enveloper containing valuable bearer bonds that are really of no consequence and just there to drive the plot. Again displaying his digital virtuosity, Fincher sets up some bravura set pieces (particularly the single-shot, triple-level break-and-enter sequence early in the film) and some clever approaches that open up the static environment. The film relies strongly on its performances and Fincher gets them from Foster and particularly Dwight Yoakam as the delightfully deranged Raoul. Forest Whitaker is solid as the baddie with a heart but less convincing is Jared Leto as the cocky mastermind who does a bad Brad Pitt impression for most of the film. But if the mechanics are on the place, the heart isn’t. While the nods to “Rear Window” and “The Killing” are nice, the closing shot of the film finds the sympathy somewhat misplaced and the film’s relentless movement doesn’t always keep the steam it works so hard to build up. [B-]

The Social Network” (2010)
The defining film of a generation? Not quite. But don’t get us wrong, there is much to love about David Fincher’s tale about the founding of Facebook. Largely ditching the camera trickery of his previous efforts, “The Social Network” finds Fincher’s focus squarely on the dialogue-heavy text of Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire script, and he delivers a thrilling, always-moving narrative that whips through 160 plus pages of screenplay in two hours that feels more like 90 minutes. His ensemble of young talent step up to plate with Jesse Eisenberg delivering a career best performance and Armie Hammer stealing every scene he’s in as the privileged Winkelvoss twins. But even though the story is complex and riveting, the characters aren’t always as rich. With key relationships underdeveloped and thinly drawn —
between Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and his ex-girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) — the film lacks the emotional resonance it strives for in the latter half of the film. And structurally, the film is more or less the best episode of “Law & Order” you’ll ever see in your life. But, lucky for us, the film was guided by the immaculately-composed hand of Fincher. It’s almost like an in-the-moment “All The President’s Men” surging forward in real time, and propelled by a wonderfully minimal and minor key score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, “The Social Network” is grand, populist entertainment at its best. [A-]

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button” (2008)
Fincher’s seventh feature-length effort is his beautiful folly: a sprawling epic about a man who ages backwards (Brad Pitt), set against the backdrop of an ever-changing America and formed from the relative noodle of a F. Scott Fitzgerald story that never quite finds its emotional footing. The film is peppered with some unbelievable moments (like the opening clock tower story/backwards war sequence) and delicately calibrated performances (particularly from Cate Blanchett), but Fincher seems more interested in the technology of aging (and then de-aging) a wonderfully detached Pitt than anything else (that technology is, admittedly, impressive and quite cutting edge). Additionally, Eric Roth’s script falters (if Benjamin narrates, how, exactly, does he know the unconnected aspects that surrounded Blanchett’s accident in that really wonderful sequence?) as often as it connects (Benjamin’s extended affair with Tilda Swinton), leaving the entire enterprise to feel off kilter and wobbly, full of amazing highs and crater-ish lulls. Maybe the film is best read as a time travel story, with Benjamin Button a displaced journeyman forced to watch the world change while he remains untouched. It would certainly explain why Benjamin, and Fincher himself, keep such a distance from the emotional core of the story, and place emphasis where Fincher thought it belonged: on technology, not people. [C+]

Se7en” (1995)
Perhaps Fincher’s still most fully-realized and haunting picture, “Se7en,” is an unforgettable modern crime classic and a landmark film that essentially made the careers of Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow and the filmmaker (Pitt’s first leading role was only the year before in “Legends of the Fall”). Grisly, dark and dank, the mood and aesthetics of this seminal serial killer film are second to none and the entire film carries the weight of a rotten, festering wound that’s about to burst. Unless you’re somehow unaware, the film centers on two detectives, a disillusioned old-timer counting down the days of his upcoming retirement (Morgan Freeman) and the naive, aggressive newbie trying to make his mark (Brad Pitt), in their search to stop a psychotic serial killer (Kevin Spacey) who is picking off his victims using the seven deadly sins as a guide. The dichotomy of the cops’ two trajectories in life is just one simple rich texture in what is a layered tapestry of various unsettling psychological elements. And while this might sound like standard Hollywood fare, Fincher largely bypasses the buddy-cop and action cliches to deliver a twisted and disturbing thriller that irrevocably scars both the audience and its character in its unbelievable, jaw-dropping conclusion (one, that Brad Pitt had to fight for, threatening the studio he’d bail on doing publicity for the film if Fincher’s cut wasn’t kept intact). Fincher’s been accused several times of his coldness and his aloofness, but here that distance allows his dour message about humanity’s inhumanity and depravity to land with shocking, arresting and enduring impact. “Se7en” is ultimately about the corrosion of morality and the decay of the human soul across society and Fincher has never been so comfortable than within this condemning milieu. The term “What’s in the box?” will never be the same for many. [A]

Fight Club” (1999)
“Overrated”? Adored by the most mongoloid of male filmgoers. Goes off the rails in the third act; throw whatever censure you want at “Fight Club,” — and you might not be wrong — but David Fincher is nowhere more at home (aside from maybe “Se7vn”) than he is with the devilish, mischievous comedy and psychosocial disturbed mien of his 1999 paean to
nihilism, shit-disturbing destruction and male emasculation. Adapted from (and deeply expanded upon) Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, in its superficial bare bones form, “Fight Club” is about an everyman (Edward Norton) so despairing and paralyzed with his mundane life that he develops an acute from of insomnia that leads him to Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt); an uber-charming and Machiavellian soap-maker and a prophet of chaos who proselytizes the ultimate form of salvation — perhaps reincarnation — in the form of basement, bare-knuckle fighting. But Fincher’s violent and deeply acidic picture uses this premise as a launching pad to explore American male masculinity, identity, and the sickening homogenization of culture; the central problem of this protagonist might just be the societal ennui-like disease that’s rotting us all from the inside as we act like spectators and tourists in our own lives. “Fight Club” is ultimately the grandest (and fascistic) carpe diem, a brutal and yet often hilarious, self-created wake-the-fuck-up call birthed from one of the most ambitious self-delusions ever demonstrated from an unreliable narrator. [A-]

Alien 3” (1993)
There’s a reason that the documentary about the making of “Alien 3” on the forthcoming Blu-ray box set is called “Rape and Wreckage;” this wasn’t what you would call a smooth shoot. Originally conceived as a film about monks living in a wooden planet, it became, under the creative guidance of Fincher (as his first feature film), about a prison colony of murderers, thieves, and rapists who take in the marooned Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, sans hair) and help her fight the drippy alien beast from the previous films. Well, not exactly like the previous films. This beastie was born from a dog, so it was slicker and sleeker and moved around the tight corridors like a rocket, which is a good metaphor for the young director that oversaw the project. Working from a compromised conception, not to mention an ill-negotiated premise (the film’s misleading teaser, riffing on the famous tagline of the original film, promised that “On earth, everyone can hear you scream”) and an impossible release date, and the results are a fascinating muddle: every actor, their head closely scalped, looks exactly-the-fucking-same; intriguing subplots (like a prison worshipping the alien as a dragon) were sheared away; and Fincher’s unerring cynicism turned a summer escapist romp into a tortured examination of the nature of death. His keen eye was already present (the drippy facility, the bar-codes on the back of the prisoners’ necks), but his sense of story still needed sharpening. If Fincher’s reputation for control precedes him, all one needs to do is look back on the disastrous results of this film — and the experience which he described as his worst — to understand why. [C] 
— Kevin Jagernauth, Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Danielle Johnsen

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox