David Fincher: what’s with this guy? I think you know – which is why you’re reading this. Recurring themes in his stylish and edgy films include creepy cellars or basements, serial murderers who commit gruesome murders seemingly without motive, but more likely just for the fun of it.
Then there are strong and successful protagonists who are taken down peg by peg. Add in obsessions, mind games, and inside looks at mundane evidence gathering that’s somewhat tedious cinematically but always intrinsic to the story.
I’m not familiar with all of this director’s films so there will be some of his work that’s not mentioned in this post. There are also his two films The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that have plenty of style, but are far less edgy. Their main purposes were tell a story and entertain, but are they intended to shock or scare – not so much.
I think the first Fincher movie I saw was Aliens 3 (1992) which by most accounts, mine too, was not in the same league as Alien by Ridley Scott or Aliens by James Cameron. But as we’ve seen repeatedly ever since – the trademark small, scary and confining spaces are often present.
Seven came out in 1995. This was a nasty film – truly horrific and not easily forgotten. In an unnamed city, two homicide detectives (Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt) begin working on a case. The killer is basically choosing his victims because they fit in to, and are guilty of, what we commonly call The Seven Deadly Sins.
As you watch, the killings become more and more gruesome. Clues meant to be found are found, and the detectives are drawn into what will be a cataclysmic end of the case and the film. Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Pride, Lust as well as Wrath and Envy have never been so portrayed so literally. This was the ultimate mind game.
In The Game (1997), we have Michael Douglas as the supremely successful but icy banker Nicholas Van Orton. Basically a loner who preferred his own company above anyone else’s, Nicholas is given a strange birthday present by his younger (and wilder) brother Conrad (Sean Penn) . It is a gift certificate for CRS – aka Consumer Recreation Services. After a day of psychological profiling as well as physical testing, Van Orton is informed that CRS has rejected him. He’s not fit for the game company’s services. Only things start to go wrong almost immediately. Things go so wrong that he will find himself penniless and without proper identification in Mexico. At one point he thinks he is dreaming that he has been prematurely buried. He’s not even dead; and it is no dream. That’s the game for you; and there’s that small confined space once more. Right plumb in the middle of another masterful mind game.
Van Orton has been taken apart piece by piece. Nothing is as it appears. He’s gone from being a Master of the Universe to a man who’s lost everything. Suicide beckons, and Van Orton goes for it. Not only did Van Orton get turned inside out – so did we.
Back in December, Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) came out. I did a lengthy discussion on this film with the blogger/critic Didion – which you can read on her website or mine. Here we have a successful magazine publisher – Mykael Blomqvist played by Daniel Craig who has just lost a libel case at the beginning of the film. He’s been nearly bankrupt, his credibility ruined, and he’s facing a jail term. His prospects are slim, and he’s been taken apart. But there’s a light on the horizon when he is offered a job by the retired industrialist Henrik Vanger.
While working on this assignment, Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) uncover another series of unsolved murders. By painstaking research – photo archives, police records, corporate documents and files – even the Bible, they are able to connect these killings which are grotesque and nearly beyond comprehension. Ultimately, they will discover that the killer walks among them – I mean literally on the same small island where they are working. Once more, with a Fincher film, we will find ourselves, along with the protagonist, in a basement that doesn’t quite have bleeding walls, but is nonetheless terrifying because this is a space that has been used for the inhuman torture of women.
A film that I haven’t seen is Fincher’s Panic Room from 2002. It fits the Fincher style sheet in the most obvious way. The title of the film tells all – ‘The Panic Room’. This is a room built into the house which is supremely safe from external forces – impregnable and locked from the inside. The main point of the film is that while the criminals that come into the home to steal a cache of $3 Million dollars which is also in a safe that’s in the Panic Room – they can’t get at this money.
At the same time, the divorced single Mom, Meg Altman, played by Jodie Foster, and her daughter Sarah, a diabetic; have placed themselves in this small box of a room, out of the reach from the criminals, they’re in a room that lacks communications to the outside world, and also lacks Sarah’s medication. This is surely a classic Fincher premise – the small confined space with a dangerous and scary unknown fate waiting outside the room.
But most recently – earlier this week – I watched Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). This one had the Fincher ‘cosmos’ in spades. A serial killer, meticulous police work, a creepy basement, obsessions, suspense, and gruesome terrifying crimes. There was even the taunting of the police by the killer who sent the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers the same encrypted letter which after its codes have been broken, we hear that the killer describes killing as ‘fun’.
The main detectives are Mark Ruffalo as Inspector David Toschi, and Anthony Edwards as Inspector William Armstrong. The case went on for years and eventually Inspector Armstrong begged off; requesting a transfer. Robert Downey Jr. had the role of a Chronicle crime reporter who’s involvement in the case may have led to him having issues with alcohol and drugs.
Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, became so obsessed with the case, that he couldn’t control himself. He wasn’t a policeman, nor was he able to keep his job at the Chronicle. How strong was his obsession – he literally put his family in harm’s way trying to solve the case, and because of this, his wife left him and took his children away. Graysmith would go on to do a book on the Zodiac murders, and his book became the source for this film.
In one nail biting scene, Graysmith follows a man (who could be the killer – we aren’t sure because Fincher never shows us the killer’s face) into a basement. If you had seen any of the other Fincher films described above – this was terror at its purest.
Though most of this film wasn’t as visually stunning as it might have been, it’s not without some dynamic charm; accomplished by masterful editing and unusual camera angles. There was one shot from high above the Golden Gate Bridge. We are in motion directly over the bridge. We can see the roadway and the cars crossing the bridge, but everything else is hidden by the cloud cover. Just an astounding shot.
So that leaves us with the thought that David Fincher loves working in films that are going to either scare our pants off or puzzle us. The crimes in the films will be severely brutal or grotesque, and the more gruesome the better. This tells us something about Fincher; but more accurately what does watching these films say about you or me?
That’s really a rhetorical question because the answer is obvious – we like being frightened, we love being shocked, and we love Fincher. Style with an edge – is there anything better? When you figure that out, please let me know.