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Filmmaker Retrospective: The Dark Cinema of David Fincher

23 November 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Ethan Levinskas

david fincher

As the great Carl Jung once wrote, “Man is an enigma to himself.” The same can be said of the characters within David Fincher’s filmography, and their relationships to themselves and one another. Shrouded by mist and shadow, he tells stories of secrets within secrets, retaining a cinematic fetish for lies and perversion.

He is known among those who have worked with him as an intense, meticulous director, sometimes forcing over fifty takes of a shot in order to have more options on the cutting room floor. Through his skill and tenacity, Fincher has managed to earn major studio funding while creating films that aren’t meant for mass consumption. This has led him to earn the attention of the Academy only recently, earning nominations for The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which are, perhaps, his most widely accessible films to date.

Fincher, like many directors before him, got his start directing music videos and commercials for Propaganda Films. He is amongst an array of successful directors to come out of Propaganda, including Michael Bay, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Zack Snyder, and many others. As he has gone on to make more feature films, Fincher has solidified himself as one of America’s modern auteurs.

Taking influence from Hitchcock, Fincher delves into the suspense provided by shadows. His films are visually grim, and they reflect the characters he portrays, who are always masking some secret or perversion. This makes his style gel with noir tales, although he has translated these skills to make successful dramas as well.

Even the stories he tells that he concedes are merely popcorn blockbusters read like Fincher outings cinematically. His skills are so apt that he is one of the few filmmakers who has continuously adapted novels into faithful film renditions. This list seeks to pay tribute to an immaculate director who can apply his lucid, misanthropic voice to any tale.

 

1. Alien 3 (1992)

Alien 3 (1992)

Although some would omit this film from a retrospective on Fincher’s career, Alien 3 remains an education on Hollywood, and the monetary pressures of blockbusters.

Alien 3 was doomed from the start. Several directors and screenwriters were attached to the film, many marking the screenplay with their fingerprints before aptly leaving the project. Even Sigourney Weaver had cold feet before the offer of five million dollars and the chance to become co-producer presented itself.

It was then that a young David Fincher was brought onto the project and shooting began without a finished script. Throughout production, the producers overruled many of Fincher’s creative decisions, resulting in tensions on set that halted progress. Upon completion, the studio reworked the final edit of the film, leading Fincher to disown the film completely. His frustrations have led him to state, “No one hated it (Alien 3) more than me; to this day no one hates it more than me.”

Once released, Alien 3 was considered a financial flop in North America, only grossing $55 million, however it more than made its budget back in foreign gross. The film received heavy criticism for its lack of dramatic storytelling, and the fact that it rendered the events of its predecessor, the highly praised Aliens, irrelevant.

As a Hollywood blockbuster, Alien 3 definitely misses the mark, but there are aspects of the film that make it redeemable. Visually and tonally, Fincher succeeds in conveying a chilling atmosphere that, compared to the previous Alien films, moves at a slugs pace. What this results in is a disjointed nihilistic take of the sci-fi icon.

 

2. Seven (1995)

se7en

After his experiences on Alien 3, Fincher did not read a script for over a year and a half. Fincher agreed to direct Seven after he read Andrew Kevin Walker’s script as he found it to be a great meditation on evil rather than a police procedural. The film tells the story of detectives David Mills and William Somerset who investigate a series of murders that take place over a weeks time, each death corresponding to one of the seven deadly sins.

Preceding the torture porn explosion of the mid-2000’s, Seven pays even more tribute to Hitchcock than the usual Fincher outing. It proves that what isn’t shown on screen is always more terrifying than what is. The audience is always within the perspectives of the two detectives, so with each murder, the audience only sees the grisly aftermath, and, like the detectives, their imaginations run wild with horrifying images.

Fincher builds a bleak world in Seven. It rains every day, as if the entire city were trying to cleanse itself of sin. Violence and tension are everywhere, whether it’s the acts of crime and murder that are prevalent throughout, or the turbulent shaking of Mills apartment.

The film also asks heavy questions regarding evil and apathy. Mills, Somerset, and John Doe, the serial killer, all represent different soldiers on the moral battlefield. The detectives fight for justice by trade, although some are corrupt. In a similar fashion, John Doe fights to purge those he deems evil from the earth. One of the most frightening implications of the film is that if you removed the fact that John Doe murdered people over his beliefs, these three characters would agree with each other on quite a lot.

Kevin Spacey portrays John Doe, the serial killer, so exceptionally that he has become solidified as one of cinema’s greatest villains. The impact of John Doe’s crimes resonates because he does not see himself above those he punishes. He sentences himself with the same violent gavel that he uses on his victims.

Well known for it’s shocking ending, readers may be surprised to learn that New Line tried to change it several times. They originally asked Andrew Kevin Walker to write a more “traditional,” ending before sending the script off to Fincher. By accident, New Line sent Fincher the original copy. It was only when Fincher offered to produce the film himself that Michael De Luca, the President of Production at New Line, agreed to keep the original ending.

However, even after filming had completed, the studio attempted to convince Fincher to change the contents of the box to something less horrifying. It was then that Brad Pitt joined Fincher in the fight to retain the grim ending. The final scenes of Mills being taken away and Somerset quoting Hemmingway were filmed after production had completed as a way to placate the studio.

The ending aided itself to the film’s notoriety. It was a financial success, grossing over $300 million (and this was in the mid-90’s). Many critics pointed specifically to the casts’ performances and the film’s ending as it’s ultimate triumph. Out of all of Fincher’s bleak efforts, this one stands as the darkest of all.

 

3. The Game (1997)

the-game

Michael Douglas portrays Nicholas Van Orton, a Scrooge-like character who lives alone, in the vast estate where his father committed suicide. It’s Nicholas’ 48th birthday, the same age Nicholas’ father was when he killed himself. His life is changed forever after his brother gives him a voucher for “a game,” offered by a company called Consumer Recreation Services. Nicholas accepts, but soon finds himself caught up in a conspiracy that threatens his life.

The film deserves a certain suspension of disbelief merely off its premise. Like watching a mouse wander through a maze, The Game is transparent in its constructed heightened reality, but much like escaping a nightmare, it appears believable through Nicholas’ perspective. If looked under a logical magnifying glass, The Game appears full of holes and artificial. The irony is that that’s exactly what The Game is. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether this is purposeful artifice by a masterful filmmaker or a rocky slip up in Fincher’s canon.

While the film doesn’t offer the depth of some of Fincher’s other efforts, The Game remains an entertaining spider-web of a thriller. It includes some fantastic performances by Douglas, Sean Penn, and Deborah Unger and the story manages to come full circle in ways few thrillers achieve.

In many ways, Van Orton is a spiritual cousin to Scrooge. The leaps of their character arcs are only achieved through the death of their respective egos, the source of all their loneliness and self-isolation. And like Scrooge, Van Orton only achieves this understanding when he wakes from the nightmare of The Game.

 

4. Fight Club (1999)

fight-club

Fincher’s first of many book adaptations, Fight Club remains one of his most provocative and withstanding films. It tells the story of an everyman, played by Edward Norton, who suffers from insomnia and harbors dark misanthropic thoughts against corporate America. After attending a few self-help groups, he befriends Tyler Durden, a charismatic soap salesman who leads the narrator down a path of violence and anarchic rebellion.

The film features commentary on consumerism and masculinity in post-feminist America. If it’s a man’s world, nature has a cruel punch line to our progress. As compared to his ancestors, natural hunters and gatherers, the narrator has become an obsolete pawn, relegated to cubicle work that doesn’t even attempt to disguise itself as rewarding or freeing. Out of the loss of utility, the men of Fight Club seek outlets of expression for the parts of them that are no longer usable.

Through it’s two main characters, the film examines two types of personalities: the selfless and the selfish man. The other men follow Tyler as they would a boss of the very corporations that they are rallying against, and this is because, unlike them, Tyler is a man with convictions and confidence, traits they sorely lack. It doesn’t matter that Tyler’s mission is deluded and violent, his energy brings about an arousal in the men, it taps into a part of themselves they long thought dead.

The fight club that Tyler starts, in which the men beat each other, and themselves, up, is akin to the way primitive tribes would function. Each member has a part to play under the leader, or alpha. The men are trained to unleash a bestial side so that they may utilize it to defend or attack. For these men – their psyches, and what’s being asked of them by the world, are at war with each other. The man that is needed is not the man that is wanted, and vice versa. Whether that role is to play a docile cog in the machine, or a risk-taking innovator, these men no longer want to be a part of a system that doesn’t support their biology.

The film continues Fincher’s dark aesthetic. As a stylistic choice, Fincher decided to shoot almost entirely at night, shooting a few morning sequences in heavily shaded areas in order for the whole to appear gritty and dark.

Although the studio and critics were initially divided on the film, Fight Club became a cult phenomenon, with several real fight clubs popping up across the nation. In the past decade, it has found it’s way into various “Best of…” film lists as well as becoming the subject of analysis and study. Many found the film disturbingly relevant given the recent Columbine shooting occurring just four months prior to the films release.

 

5. Panic Room (2002)

Panic Room (2002)

With Fight Club taking place across over 100 set locations, Fincher sought for simplicity in his next film. He found it in Panic Room, a thriller film about a mother (Jodie Foster) and daughter (Kristen Stewart) who hide in their panic room during a burglary in which the robbers are trying to get to a safe that’s beneath the panic room. The film takes place entirely in the newly purchased house of the protagonist, Meg Altman.

The panic room that came with the house also happens to have several security systems including surveillance cameras, a public announcement system, and a separate phone line. Because of this, the film plays out much like a board or video game would. The audience can see both sides, and the moves that they are playing against each other.

As the conflict between the two sides escalates, we see the mother/daughter bond grow stronger while the ties between the burglars weaken. While not offering much depth in the way of human relations, Panic Room does remain a taut and slick thriller that, if nothing else, will entertain the audience. Arguably, Panic Room is not one of Fincher’s best, but he, himself has claimed that the film is meant simply as a popcorn flick, and is meant as nothing more. In that regard, it succeeds.

 

 

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  • Ted Wolf

    For me, the only serious misstep Fincher has made creatively has been Benjamin Button. Even TGWTDT, although not the commercial success they hoped for, was engrossing.

    • Xanian

      Gone Girl, while not as serious a misstep as Benjamin Button, was nowhere near his best too.

      • Ted Wolf

        I’ve got to agree. As of late he seems to have lost some of the fire that inspired his earlier efforts, while at the same time tackling tremendously good source material.