Filmmaker Retrospective: The Dark Cinema of David Fincher

6. Zodiac (2007)


With Fincher’s announcement that he would be directing a film about the Zodiac killer, many expected a return to the grisly themes of Seven. Instead, Fincher went in the opposite direction and made Zodiac a slow burning police procedural that is as informative as it is engaging. However, much like Seven, the film spends less time on the acts of murder, and spends more time on the characters investigating the case.

Fortunately, the film does not drudge up ideas of fiction to make this depiction of the Zodiac investigation more marketable. It does not contain heavy explosions or a climactic battle between good and evil. It’s a harrowing depiction of obsession and it’s effects on men chasing after an invisible enemy.

Compared to his last film, Panic Room, Zodiac flows in a starkly different way. Whereas Panic Room features cameras flying through keyholes, and gas explosions in a mansion, Zodiac prefers static cameras at a plodding pace. Those who find Zodiac dull, boring, or frustrating actually realizes Fincher’s intent. In the POV of the characters, you are an individual who stuck with an arduous experience, discovering clues here and there, that you hoped would lead to the truth. Zodiac, in true form, shows us reality, and how the pursuit for truth can be harsh and unrewarding.

Fincher and crew spent several months gathering notes and preparing for their roles. They went through a bit of a procedural of their own, interviewing family members, and retired investigators amongst a slew of other people. When Jake Gyllenhal met up with Robert Graysmith, he recorded videos of him as to best represent him in the film. Likewise upon receiving the role, Mark Ruffalo met up with David Toschi, and they had several conversations about the investigation.

Many of the negative criticisms of Zodiac dealt with the fact that they felt unsatisfied with the ending. In many ways, Zodiac is a reflection of what it must have been like for the detectives of the case. The case is still unsolved. A murderer got away, and the detectives will have to find a way to be at peace with that.


7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button tells the tale of a man who is old when he is born and is young when he dies. This premise gives Button both a separation and a connection to and from the audience. Based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Benjamin Button is a musing on the death, and is one of the more peculiar films within Fincher’s canon. While it does contain the heavy themes, and melancholic color palette typical of a Fincher film, this genre is entirely new.

In some ways, the film feels like a depressing Forrest Gump. We watch as Benjamin Button lives the American dream – he makes an honest living for himself, away from his family and loved ones, he goes to war, he falls deeply in love, and he goes on to experience the wonders that other parts of the world have to offer him.

While Fincher is able to command the camera, his mastery over storytelling is a bit shaken here. It shows that this film is an adaptation of a short story stretched to a features length, especially when it nears its heart-wrenching ending. The film loses ground in the last third, as Benjamin is forces himself to leave the family he worked so hard to build in order to conceal his aging ailment from his daughter. This is where the character loses appeal. Instead of fighting to experience a regular life in spite of his ailment, Benjamin runs away, and for good.

The rest of Benjamin’s life is shown in chopped up pieces, as the flashbacks are provided by a journal his dying wife is reading to their now adult daughter. The journal ended when he left, but the rest of his story is told in a series of postcards he sent their daughter, each talking about how he wished he could be there during her life.

As an experiment in masterful cinematic technique, the film is excellent. As a musing on death, the film works pretty well. As a story, the film finds turbulence in reaching its climax.


8. The Social Network (2010)

The Social Network

Based on the premise that it’s a movie about the creation of Facebook, The Social Network sounds like it could be quite dull. Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher join forces to ensure not a single dull moment takes place on camera. A highly embellished adaptation of The Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network makes poignant commentary about the social media giant, how absolute power corrupts absolutely, and how the Internet has forever changed how we interact with one another.

The film jumps smoothly between flashbacks of Facebooks inception and growth, and the present day depositions between The Winklevoss twins, Eduardo Saverin, and Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg’s fast hand is shown to the audience early on, as he takes the Winklevoss’ twins idea for his own, and betrays his closest friend and business partner with seemingly minimal guilt. Sorkin manages to make this pursuit of power sympathetic by appealing to an aspect that Zuckerberg himself tries to bury deep – it’s all to impress a girl.

Erica, who breaks up with Zuckerberg in the very first scene, is shown and mentioned only a couple of times throughout the film, and yet, she remains a point of concern for Mark. Even their conversation at the films start sets up the themes of The Social Network perfectly.

Mark’s insecurities reveal themselves as he continuously wrangles their conversation back to being about social status – Mark desires the physicality of being on a row crew, and the social power of being in a fraternity, both of which are denied to him. At the end of the film, as he sits, alone, in the deposition room, Mark is accompanied only by his invention, Facebook, for comfort. He decides, at the end, to concede a portion of his pride and send her a friend request.

This film saw the start of Fincher’s working relationship with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails fame. Fincher had previously used a remix of Nine Inch Nails hit “Closer,” on Seven, and he directed the music video for their song, “Only,” so it comes as no surprise that Reznor’s haunting sonic aesthetic would mesh well with Fincher’s visual style. The collaboration proved successful, as the duo earned an Oscar award for their score on the film. They have scored every Fincher film since.


9. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Based on Stieg Larsson’s novel of the same name, Fincher’s adaptation sees him giving the film a proper Hollywood treatment. Compared to its Swedish adaptation, Fincher’s is sleeker and more confident. It tells the story of a journalist named Michael Blomkvist who is commissioned to find out why a young girl from a wealthy family disappeared over forty years ago. He eventually recruits the help of a young computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander, who helps him discover the family’s frightening secret.

Themes of domestic violence and rape take over, as Blomkvist comes face to face with a misogynist murderer, and Salander deals with her own abuse before aiding him. Originally cold and distant, Lisbeth’s heart is only softened to Blomkvist, another man, after he mentions his love for his daughter.

Like any Fincher expedition into noir territory, secrets are hidden all around, but this time they are disguised by snow instead of shadow, buried beneath the wintry earth. Fincher’s camera moves with a methodic pace, almost always directly behind our protagonists. Something is watching them, and knows exactly what they’re doing, but when will the killer decide to reveal himself?

The film features a star studded cast that includes Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, and Stellan Skarsgard amongst a variety of others. One of the most striking things to come out of Fincher’s adaptation was Rooney Mara’s portrayal of Lisbeth. By comparison with her Swedish counterpart, Noomi Rapace, Mara brings a new, more explicit air to the character. Instead of a brooding mystery, Mara’s Lisbeth is fierce force not to be reckoned with.

Since it’s release, Fincher has expressed a desire to adapt the other two novels in The Millennium Trilogy, although nothing has been set or greenlit as of yet. He did claim recently that the potential for a sequel is open, and that Sony currently has a writer working on a script.


10. Gone Girl (2014)

Gone Girl (2014)

It doesn’t matter what’s real, only what you can make people feel and believe. Fincher’s most recent film, Gone Girl, is based on Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name (the screenplay is also written by her). It tells the story of Nick, a young writer whose wife, Amy, has gone missing. As the investigation continues, all clues point to Nick as being the cause for her disappearance.

As provocative as it is controversial, Gone Girl seems to have struck a chord, with some lambasting the film as misogynist, while others claim it’s the most feminist film of the year. The fact that it can appeal to both sides is a testament to Gillian Flynn’s story, and Fincher’s nonjudgmental adaptation. Part of this appeal is due to both Flynn and Fincher’s ability to switch between Nick and Amy’s perspectives so eloquently.

There are aspects of Nick and Amy that appeal to both masculinity and femininity. It delves into the different types of power that men hold over women and that women hold over men, and that our preconceived ideas about who’s in power aren’t always what they seem.

As with most films, these plot elements are embellished to show an essential part of life – the deception involved in our relationships with each other and the media. We currently live in the age of mass misinformation, where a suburban teeny bopper could be having their writing published and shared with the world, should it go viral.

It doesn’t matter if the information is true, so long as it sparks an emotional response to get clicks and views. Because it sparks an emotional response, this information is then often shared without context or truth supporting it. This is the essence of Amy’s deception. She knows this, and uses her charm to appear the victim and appeal to people’s emotional response.