6. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011)
And so began the paperback phase of Fincher’s career, which continues with no sign of abating. This unwieldy adaptation holds an awkward spot in the director’s filmography, in that it feels like it belongs to him less than any of his other features (save maybe for “Alien³”). Adapted from one of the most rabidly popular series of books since “Harry Potter” and released in the aftermath of the Swedish-language movie adaptations, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” seemed like the decision of a director who was running out of options, who had no choice but to tackle something so culturally monolithic if he wanted to make bold entertainment for adults. The methodicalness of Stieg Larsson’s story must have appealed to Fincher, as did its focuses on technology and obsession, but to this day it still feels like he doesn’t really give a damn about the disappearance of poor Harriet Vanger.
Maybe that’s why “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” — his version, anyway — is so extraordinary. As “Zodiac” had already taught the few who had bothered to seek it out, Fincher is considerably more interested in the journey than he is the destination, considerably more interested in what an investigation identifies about the people conducting it than he is the people they’re trying to identify. This is an 158-minute murder mystery with a grand total of three plausible suspects, and the ultimate reveal is so obvious that you can hardly feel it happening. But Fincher mines more drama from process alone than the Swedish version does from its entire plot.
A cracked snow globe of a movie that’s covered in broken glass, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is — on its white Scandinavian surface — the coldest thing that Fincher has ever made. It’s also, in some respects, also the warmest. On one hand, it’s a shuddering multi-generational epic of systemic misogyny, and how it thrives on silence (the muting nature of snow becoming all the more sinister for that). On the other, it’s a beautiful and deeply human portrait of two people saving each from a world that’s out to destroy them. Hardly just the badass goth hacker chick she used to be, this Lisbeth Salander is a fresh welt surrounded by scar tissue, a brilliant survivor who taps into her trauma like a superpower, only to be victimized by the collateral damage left behind. Rooney Mara’s heartbreaking performance might be the best that Fincher has ever inspired, the actress piercing through layers of affect and rage to create something that’s heightened but indivisibly real. Check out the moment when Lisbeth knocks that guy down on the subway escalator and then takes an extra second just to scream in his face; it’s enough to justify this new adaptation in and of itself.
5. “Se7en” (1995)
There’s some kind of sadistic poetry to the fact that John Doe — a villain we remember for shamelessly celebrating his sins — is now the President. Okay, so maybe Kevin Spacey only plays POTUS on Netflix, but the actor’s career path still helps to make sense of our current predicament. The serial killer in “Se7en” may not have much in common with Donald Trump (one is patient, brilliant, and articulate, and the other is Donald Trump), and yet both monsters teach us the same lesson by preying upon and inspiring the worst of what we are: The world isn’t fair, and some people will always need to be better than others for it to keep spinning.
No, I’m not trying to argue that “Se7en” is a “serial killer story for the Age of Trump.” And yet, for a grunge nightmare that opens with Tipper Gore’s least favorite Nine Inch Nails song, the film seems more responsive to the present moment than you might expect. An epochal neo-noir that launched a handful of careers, galvanized others, and instantly asserted itself as one of its decade’s major cinematic flash points, David Fincher’s second feature will always have value when things seem hopeless.
The first two acts of this grippingly oppressive film may be the stuff of a traditional detective procedural, but they’re still suspenseful in an era when every town in America has its own “NCIS” spinoff (thanks in large part to the laconic chemistry that burbles between Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt). However, “Seven” is obviously remembered for the nihilism of its third act, which giddily reanimates the apocalyptic spirit that once atomized inside the likes of “Kiss Me Deadly.” However, this time around we find out exactly what’s in the box, Fincher ambushing Hollywood (and its audiences) with an unforgettable movie about living in a world so dark that we can’t see it clearly. A lot has changed since then; 1995 may not sound like ancient history, but it was so long ago that Kevin Spacey’s smugness could still surprise us. Then again, a lot hasn’t.
4. “Gone Girl” (2014)
Elevating a solid beach reach into a lurid and hilarious trash masterpiece, Fincher’s “Gone Girl” is what finally convinced me to reserve any and all judgement on his career moves until I can see them play out on screen. “World War Z 2?” Why not! At this point, Fincher could announce that he’s directing a sequel to “The Emoji Movie” and I’d have no choice but to trust him.
Part of that trust owes to the fact that Fincher knows how to get the best out of his collaborators; if directors can be likened to generals, Fincher knows how to marshal the talents of his team as well as anyone on the planet. A venomous thriller that hides an unapologetically bitter story about the performative nature of public life, “Gone Girl” starts by tapping in to Ben Affleck’s inherent sliminess and leveraging it against the vampirism of contemporary American culture. Carefully blossoming into something a lot bigger than its central mystery might suggest, the film weaponizes the stillness that has come to define Fincher’s collaborations with DP Jeff Cronenwth, creating a vision of suburbia that’s dreamy and distrusting in equal measure, a hazy place where everything — even marriage — is seen in shallow focus.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ tinkling score may not be quite as memorable as the one they made for “The Social Network,” but it’s just as instrumental to the film’s sustained atmosphere, each woozy note helping Fincher to achieve the numbness of watching someone’s life unravel on the local news. Rosamund Pike is a duplicitous revelation as “Amazing” Amy, Carrie Coon is Carrie Coon (enough said), and Gillian Flynn does an absolutely brilliant job of adapting her own novel, playing up its soapy violence while leaving just enough space in the script for Fincher to pour salt in the wounds. By the time Tyler Perry shows up in the role of a fame-friendly defense attorney named Tanner Bolt(!), “Gone Girl” has already transcended its page-turner origins and reached for something higher, like a Walmart-brand riff on “Certified Copy” as dreamed up by Nancy Grace. It’s an unambiguously American love story.