How do we judge a filmmaker? Is it by the number of awards they have won? Is it by the amount of films they have made? Is it in the way they transfer character, settings and story from page to screen? If it’s David Fincher we’re talking, and we are, then it’s the third one. Over a twenty-five-year career Fincher has dragged his audiences, be they TV or film audiences, to different versions of hell. Whether hell is a prison planet, San Francisco in the 1970s or the modern all-encompassing hell of Facebook Fincher has taken and stranded us there for two hours or more.
Involved in cinema in some form or another since the age of eight, Fincher came up doing music videos for the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson and Nine Inch Nails. He won back-to-back MTV Music awards for Best Direction for his work with Madonna along with a Grammy for Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake’s smash hit ‘Suit & Tie’ in 2013. In 1992 Fox hired him to direct Alien 3 and despite the studio’s meddling and a lukewarm reception, Fincher had his foot in the door.
Though it has its fans Alien 3 is not necessarily a good film but it planted the seeds for what would come to define nearly all of Fincher’s cinematic worlds. A setting slightly off-kilter from our own reality, a deeply flawed protagonist that is constantly in danger and a story obsessed with the cruel, random nature of the universe.
“I was drugged and left for dead in Mexico – and all I got was this stupid t-shirt!”
The above comes from the t-shirt Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) wakes up wearing after, well, being drugged and left for dead in Mexico. The Game can be a confusing, disorientating watch but it’s worth it especially in terms of the settings David Fincher tries to create in his films. A tone of deep unease is riven through The Game like ore through bedrock just as it is in Fight Club or Gone Girl.
After receiving a supposedly “lifechanging” gift from his younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) Nicholas is put through hell. He is followed, shot at, drugged, kidnapped and fooled into a suicide attempt. Of course the movie’s title is a bit of a giveaway but the way the film doubles down on its setting makes it a thrill ride regardless. At first seeing Nicholas get his comeuppance for being a rich prick is cathartic before that catharsis threatens public carnage. Pretty soon what’s happening to Nicholas Van Orton is something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
The Game is the closest of Fincher’s films that so clearly presents a nightmarish version of our reality while still being a physically recognisable version of our reality. Alien 3, Seven and The Mysterious Case of Benjamin Button are pretty far removed from something audiences could recognise as their reality though that’s mostly thanks to the genre conventions they abide by.
The settings of his other films especially Gone Girl, Panic Room and The Social Network are more recognisable. The events within them are at least possible if improbable. It helps that his shooting style, shot blocking and direction are so precise that even if some of the stories he tells are harder to get lost in than others his style will eventually convince where story may not. The contrast of warm hues with stark, almost sterile, spaces in The Social Network. The crumbling, rotting sets of Seven. The unflinching, unblinking camera that forces audiences to bear witness to unspeakable acts in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. All play into the view that, to David Fincher, hell is a real place and it’s here on Earth.
“I need to look him in the eye, and I need to know that it’s him.”
Upon its release in 2007 Zodiac ran with the tagline: “There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer.” The Zodiac killings have inspired massive speculation since the first murders in 1968. Interest died down in the mid-70s but flared up again with the publishing of Zodiac by Robert Graysmith in 1986. Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film, was so consumed by his search for the killer’s identity that he lost his job and eventually his wife along with custody of his children.
The film, like the book, indicts paedophile Robert Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch) as the killer. Of course, Allen died in 1992 a day before he was to be questioned by police. Therein lies the power of Zodiac. Just as it seems ready to judge, convict and sentence Allen or any of the other numerous shadowy figures it implicates it draws back. For as much as Zodiac is a real story populated by real people it is also fiction.
Fincher, as a filmmaker and storyteller, is not necessarily limited by the truth of the case. He could have easily taken liberty with it as James Ellroy did with the Black Dahlia murder. But he chose not to instead limiting himself to minor fictional liberties. His artistic stamp is all over the style and story of the film but only where it enhances the telling of the story. In other moments he draws back allowing the truth, relative that it is, to speak for itself. The brutal murders that open Zodiac do as much to propel the film’s story as Mills and Somerset’s banter does in Seven or that the reflective pool of blood did in Gone Girl.
“I killed for you; who else can say that?”
Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) is, by her own admission, a bitch and a cunt. So too is Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) but in a different way to his driven, ambitious, definitely sociopathic wife. Gillian Flynn’s novels are perfect material for Fincher. Dark, unflinching and raw Flynn’s stories are ripe for Fincher’s assured style but it’s her characters where the two auteurs really meet.
It’s hard to root for Nick Dunne at the start of Gone Girl, almost as hard as it is to root for Amy Dunne from the halfway point. At the end it’s hard to root for either of these two trapped, antagonistic assholes but somehow Fincher makes us. No matter how depraved the villain or flawed the hero Fincher often, though not always, finds a nugget of sympathy in the twisted, blackened souls of his characters.
The Narrator (Edward Norton) of Fight Club is a weak, pathetic little man in the shadow of his hyper-masculine friend Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Mark Zuckerberg might be the genius behind Facebook in The Social Network but he’s also a chauvinistic ass. On the other hand Burnham (Forest Whitaker) is a thief with a conscience in Panic Room and while Mindhunter’s Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton) might be a deranged serial killer he’s also a friendly conversationalist. Fincher’s heroes are never pure but his villains are never truly monstrous either.
The last line of Seven is: “Hemingway once wrote: ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for’. I believe in the second part”. It’s saddening and cynically amusing but it also sums up Fincher’s body of work quite nicely. The world, as Fincher sees it, is a filthy pit inhabited by complicated, flawed heroes or depraved, sadistic villains, if either word even applies to his characters.
As he himself said “I think people are perverts. I’ve maintained that. That’s the foundation of my career.” When you’re watching one of Fincher’s film it’s hard not to feel a little dirty, and a little doomed.