Monday, March 5, 2012

Ranking Fincher

David Fincher is one of my favorite directors. The guy has a distinctive style that appeals to me. Anything he's involved with, I want to see.

I'm a movie fan, and so are a lot of my friends. I've seen plenty of commentary and evaluation of other directors, but not much about Fincher. So I thought that would be a fun exercise. (NOTE: After working on this a while, I Googled "Fincher Ranked" and found a handful. But not reading them until I'm done.)

Fincher cut his teeth directing music videos, and back when you could easily see music videos, chances are you knew his work even if you didn't know him. Twenty years ago, in 1992, he moved into feature films with Alien 3, and in the eight subsequent films he has created, he's become one of the most interesting directors alive. Three of his works are classics -- Se7en, Fight Club, The Social Network -- and in my mind, two more (Zodiac, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) are pretty close.

Here are my favorites and what I consider to be his best, in order:

Fincher tapped into the pissed-off, manic-depressive psyche of the American male with his version of Chuck Pahlaniuk's Fight Club. And I'm breaking the first two rules here. Most guys love this movie because it speaks to us on some level. We're either the Alpha Male, think we're the Alpha Male, want to be the Alpha Male, overstimulated, underappreciated, closet madman, corporate slave stifling our anger every day, follower nearing his breaking point... every man relates to a character in Fight Club, and not necessarily Tyler Durden's. In our darkest place, we want to make a statement.

This is a deeply subversive movie. If you haven't seen it yet, lift that heavy rock and find out about it. I also think this is far and away Brad Pitt's best performance. For the 47 people who haven't seen the movie, I won't give out a major spoiler, but I'll just say the end scene's terrible prescience with The Pixies as soundtrack is forever indicative of the lengths to which some people will go to express dissatisfaction with business as usual.

I also think this movie made Ed Norton's career. Fight Club is one of those movies (like Field of Dreams, Goodfellas, the first two Godfathers, Shawshank) that people will stop and watch any time that they stumble over it while channel-surfing.


I think Fincher's most underappreciated work is Zodiac, his look at a handful of unsolved Bay Area serial killings of the late 60s-early 70s. Nonfiction events provide the source material in only two of Fincher's movies -- this and The Social Network. I think that's why they're two of his strongest efforts.

Death, chaos/anarchy/crime and a twisted sort of optimistic pessimism are themes in FIncher's movies. Especially in Fight Club, Zodiac, Dragon Tattoo, and Se7en, the protagonists are all in situations that encourage a negative worldview, yet none of them have given up... they all are fighting to find a sort of justice, or to untwist something that is deeply twisted. They have a morality at their core. This might be Fincher's dirty little secret: While his films are dark, moody, disturbing and show some of the worst qualities of humanity, the primary characters nevertheless usually have a lot of heart and want a better world. This case could be made for every one of his works.

The brilliantly shot Zodiac is one of the few films Fincher splashes with daylight, and director of photography Harris Savides' work is beautiful. Savides manages to give much of the footage a filmy light grime that set exactly the right mood of the period. It's as if he shot the thing using Instagram. The effort reminds me very much of the evocative work of Roger Deakins. I'd love to see Fincher work with Deakins some day.

Zodiac has a great cast: Jake Gyllenhaall, Robert Downey Jr., the criminally underappreciated Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards all have strong moments without anyone overwhelming the screen. Support roles from Elias Koteas, Chloe Sevigny, Brian Cox and Donal Logue all have their moments... as does the creepy, creepy performance by John Carroll Lynch as the prime suspect. Lynch is like M. Emmet Walsh, always interesting.

All of the players become obsessed with finding this clever murderer, and none do. As the film unfolds and time passes, the main characters just cannot let go of the unsolved case, even as the news cycle inexorably moves on to the next flavor of the month. Fincher's achievement is that like the detectives and reporters working to find the killer, we too become unsatisfied and unable to let it go. The taunts and successes of this clearly psychotic killer gnaw at the characters and at us. We must know! But we never do, even when we think we might have finally solved the mystery. The word "gripping" truly applies. I loved this movie, but still hate that whoever it was that killed five people (and claimed to have killed 37) decades ago was never (as far as we know) brought to justice. This one haunts you and gets under your skin.


Another psycho killer who has eluded justice for decades is at the heart of the mystery in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I've only read the first of Stieg Larsson's page-turning trilogy, mostly because I wanted to see what all the hubbub was about, and it was a great read. Fincher's take on the story was right in his wheelhouse and in this case the dark, snowy woods of Sweden were a perfect backdrop for the mood he likes to set.

The movie veers from the book in a reasonable fashion, because otherwise it would have been 3.5 hours long. As it is, Dragon Tattoo still runs almost 2.5 hours, and while I thought Fincher did a great job, the denouement felt a little rushed to me. It's kind of how in baseball when they play 162 games, then decide to rush through a five-game series in the divisional playoffs... Now you're in a hurry?. I think he could have let it unfold a bit longer and just gone for the three-hour movie.

That quibble aside, this is a great film with great performances by Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig and Stellan Skarsgard. Mara's Lisbeth Salander is alienation personified. I haven't seen the Swedish original in which Noomi Rapace starred, but I know it has its fans. The fact that the movie is so long yet goes by so quickly is the mark of great storytelling. You're always engaged. I imagine those who have read the book beforehand, despite knowing what twists are in store, are better prepared to stay with the complexities of the plot.

To show a foreign culture to an American audience is a challenge and Fincher met it. The darkness of a Swedish winter and the remoteness of the setting is a character in the film... while it could have been adapted to Wisconsin or Maine, remaining true to the Swedish setting is a good move. It further puts the US market it was built for in an unfamiliar surrounding. Clever.

Similarly, Mara's Salander is a heroine hard to warm to. Yes, she's attractive but not in a traditional way. She's attractive for her attitude and fire and... distance. The Dragon Tattoo is not artwork -- it's a shield. No one gets inside, although several people try to force their way inside. That's a risky choice, as Lisbeth proves conclusively that she will make the ultimate determination. A fascinating character.

According to Wiki (so it must be true) a busload of A-listers wanted the Salander role. Most of them would have been distractions... I have no problem looking at Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, Keira Knightley et al... but none of them could have topped Mara's performance. The role needed someone we didn't know a lot about beforehand. Another testament to Fincher's smart filmmaking: he understood in casting that mystery was important even in the details.

One last thing: Fincher's title sequence in Fight Club was a bit of a sensation when it arrived, but the title sequence in Dragon Tattoo, with Trent Reznor's take on "Immigrant Song" with Karen O's vocals... sublime.


The Social Network is probably seen as Fincher's best work, and it's certainly his most accessible. Because half a billion people use Facebook, it had a head start.

TSN should have won the Oscar for best picture, instead losing to the schmaltz of The King's Speech. Typical Academy. Keep in mind that while Oscar gets it right sometimes, they've made some serious mistakes over the years, too many to enumerate. Because Fincher's movies are so generally dark, it may be a long time before he gets another Oscar nomination, and that's going to over time be seen as almost unforgivable. I imagine a 70-year old Fincher getting some BS award for lifetime achievement. If that's the case, then fortunately by then the old farts who made these bad calls will have died off. The movie topped many of the best critics' Top 10 lists.

It's important to point out that Fincher's effort this time was assisted greatly by the considerable talents of writer Aaron Sorkin. This being Hollywood, of course some liberties were taken with the source material. I first read of the background battle over Facebook in a fascinating Rolling Stone article whose key points did make it into the film. What Mark Zuckerberg probably didn't like was the portrayal of his character in the film. Jesse Eisenberg's amazing performance envisions the creator of perhaps the greatest connectivity tool since the telephone, television and even the Internet as an angry loner with few natural social skills. Brilliant.

Is Zuck a cold fish who alienates those around him and lacks warmth?

Hmmm.... doesn't everyone who uses Facebook share some of those qualities? We show photos and comment about other people's life-event postings, and it gives the illusion of our being connected. We're definitely more aware, and that passes as connected. But some of our FB "friends" we've never actually seen or heard in real life.

Once again, Fincher has shown that what is displayed on the surface is far, far, far away from reality.


And those are similar concepts on display in Se7en. A dark murder mystery about two cops in a rainy, gritty, unidentified city (it reminded me of Blade Runner's setting) tracking a serial killer who is a brilliant nutcase.

This was the movie that convinced me Brad Pitt could act. He more than holds his own against Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey.

Se7en was Fincher's second film, and an incredibly brave choice. You've had some commercial success directing music videos and can probably milk that for as long as you want, have your nice house in Malibu, and ride off into the sunset. Your first feature, Alien 3, was a dud, and clearly the weakling in a previously profitable franchise. Maybe feature films aren't your forte.

So what do you do? You take on subject material that is beyond dark -- it's terrifying. This movie gives you the creeps, and it's hard to shake. Most movie fans will watch good movies again and again. This is definitely a good movie, well-done, a great cast, a fresh and imaginative story... but just damned disturbing. This killer is unhinged, and believable. Someone with that much malice in his heart could be walking among you. Could be living next door to you. Could be conceiving murders so well-considered that you can understand his thinking.

And THAT'S the terror. That shows the hate that many people have deep in their darkest corners, and the linkage that can make something heinous, cruel and inhuman palatable. In some small way, the rationale for these sick murders makes sense. And that means anyone is just a tiny break away from unspeakable atrocity.

A stretch? Then explain the Holocaust. Explain Gacy. Explain Dahmer. Explain Manson. Explain Kony. Explain Pol Pot. Explain My Lai.

The star power in this movie was special. You had Pitt emerging as a true superstar. You had Freeman at the height of his powers -- two of his three previous films had been Driving Miss Daisy and Shawshank Redemption. And Spacey, a lesser light previously, not only had Se7en but The Usual Suspects in 1995. I'd say that was a damned good year for Kevin Spacey.

With this movie, Fincher was a key cog in developing Pitt and Spacey. But he also launched himself into the "force to be reckoned with" category.

Se7en was released in 1995. I've never watched it since. After I finish this, I'm going to watch it again. I just found it so upsetting and frightening that I couldn't do it again. It's that compelling.


There was not a lot of love given to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and before seeing this film I had my doubts. The movie is adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story and is a true flight of fancy. It's completely unbelievable but good-hearted at its core. Fincher's first non-R-rated work suffers from some of that sentimentality (unexpected!) as well as the general weirdness of the premise. The background story seems like his twisted attempt at something akin to "The Notebook" or "Forrest Gump." I agree with the critics who say it just doesn't work, but on the other hand the movie got 13 Oscar nominations and three technical wins. For me, it starts the lesser half of his portfolio.


Before Dragon Tattoo, Fincher's movies skewed dude. Panic Room is the only Fincher movie that has strong female roles (Helena Bonham-Carter is a third wheel in Fight Club). Jodie Foster's career is interesting to consider; at one time she ranked among our best actresses, but today her name wouldn't come up on a list of best actresses for a while. I had a hard time buying the entire Panic Room premise... I didn't find the home itself believable, the criminal attack believable, and the criminals themselves believable. Forest Whitaker is the tortured bad guy (trite); Dwight Yoakum is the psycho (trite); Foster is the victim who finds herself and fights back (a role she has gone to over and over, and trite). This movie also foisted upon us one Kristen Stewart, who I've seen in a lot of movies and has grown into an attractive woman, but outside of her great job as Joan Jett in "The Runaways," she's about as one-note as Gene Hackman (don't get me started). The story's kind of preposterous... this safe room, but unsafe because it's easily cut off from outside communication. Huge credibility gaps.

Because of the contained nature of the story, this could conceivably work as a play. There's no location shooting needed. As such, it should have felt very claustrophobic and uncomfortable. Fincher's typical mood lighting cast the whole thing in a shadowy blue hue, but it just didn't work for me.


A bad sign for The Game is that my memories of it are of a manic Sean Penn (redundant), Michael Douglas looking bewildered and a plot so convoluted as to be too much work to remember. The entire movie emerges as a sort of over-the-top mindfuck. M. Night Shyamalan and Christopher Nolan have done this type of thing much better. Visually, this movie doesn't seem to fit with his other work. It was his third release, and a bit of a surprise coming after he had hit it out of the park with Se7en.


Alien 3 was Fincher's first feature, and his weakest. It has the characteristic darkness of tone and lighting that he's become known for, but you can blame the meagerness of this one on tired source material. Ridley Scott and James Cameron had scored big with their takes on the Alien idea, and had set the bar pretty high for Fincher. Like the doomed occupants of Fury 161, the story had nowhere to go. Visually interesting, but otherwise, not much here should have inspired anyone to think Fincher was going to become Fincher.

No comments:

Post a Comment