After an agonisingly long six-year wait, we finally have a new film by one of the greatest directors of the last 30 years—David Fincher. In all fairness, we haven’t been without Fincher content in the past six years. He has been the de facto showrunner of Netflix’s hit crime series Mindhunter, directing seven episodes across the first (and probably only) two seasons. Mindhunter is notable for being perfectly tailored to Fincher’s two favourite cinematic concepts, which have recurred across all of his works—investigation and murder.
While Fincher has conceded that a third season of the series is unlikely due to the high budget, he sneakily announced that he’d been given a four-year contract by Netflix worth $100 million to create whatever he wanted. As a Fincher fanboy of the highest order, this was some of the most exciting news of 2020. I assume we won’t have another six-year wait for his next film! Fincher began his career in the advertising and music video world, directing ‘Vogue’ for Madonna and ‘Freedom! ‘90’ for George Michael. He was one of the best there was in that field, and it wasn’t long before he transitioned into feature films. His meticulous visual style was suited to films from the get-go.
Alien 3 (1992)
This is the only Fincher film that many consider to be an outright failure, but I wouldn’t exactly go there. Alien 3 follows Sigourney Weaver’s iconic character Ellen Ripley, who crashes on a prison planet populated by violent male inmates while a xenomorph wreaks havoc (surprise, surprise). It had a notoriously troubled production from the start that had nothing to do with Fincher. Two directors and a swath of writers were involved in the project before Fincher came on board, tasked with directing a hodgepodge of a screenplay that combined elements of three that were previously considered. Fincher was bullied on the project by executives and producers, who didn’t trust the young wunderkind. While the film admittedly does have narrative shortcomings, there’s still evidence of what will make Fincher the master he’ll eventually become. It’s a beautiful film and Fincher does a fantastic job conveying how icky and gnarly this facility is. There’s also a brilliant use of POV from the xenomorph’s perspective. Even though it performed decently at the box office, earning $159 million worldwide, Fincher was so disenfranchised that he planned to not work in the film system again. Thankfully, he reneged on that call.
Se7en is one of the most disgusting films ever made. That may be the greatest compliment I could give it. Fincher was drawn back into the film world by Andrew Kevin Walker’s perfect screenplay, which has one of the most ingenious premises ever—two detectives have to track down a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his motives for murder. It’s shocking that no one thought of this prior to 1995. What makes Se7en such a masterpiece is that Fincher takes what could be a standard crime thriller with a great premise and transforms it into something overflowing with an atmosphere that is truly nauseating and oppressive. At every turn, it feels like this city is designed to destroy these two detectives. There’s rarely a moment of true comfort—it’s borderline apocalyptic. If they wanted to, one could even call it a horror film. It was a sleeper hit in 1995 and fittingly became the seventh highest grossing film of the year worldwide. It also marked the first collaboration between Fincher and Brad Pitt, who would go on to work together two more times.
The Game (1997)
It’s telling how great Fincher is that The Game is considered one of his lower tier works, because it’s a blockbuster that so many directors would be proud to have on their resume. It follows an investment banker who is given a prize by his brother that allows his life to be integrated with a special game, which inevitably becomes more sinister than he ever imagined. The Game is a wholly convoluted film, and that’s basically the point. One of the main criticisms it receives is how implausible it is, but Fincher takes the naturally silly premise and uses it as a tool to create a cinematic magic trick in itself. Most importantly, it may be Fincher having his most fun in his whole career. He couldn’t have picked a stronger lead than Michael Douglas to convey his character’s constant paranoia and confusion. While it wasn’t nearly as much of a commercial success as Se7en, it has held up extremely well in Fincher’s canon.
Fight Club (1999)
I was specifically instructed not to talk about it.
(I’m still shocked that 20th Century Fox gave Fincher $63 million to create an anti-capitalist, nihilistic neo-noir, but I’m so glad they did).
Panic Room (2002)
Panic Room went through some pre-production struggle with Nicole Kidman originally cast before leaving due to an injury sustained on Moulin Rouge. She was eventually replaced by Jodie Foster, who learned she was pregnant five weeks into filming her scenes—causing another delay. It’s a film with a remarkably simple premise: a mother and a daughter have to hide in their home’s panic room after three robbers break in. Fincher wanted to create a simple popcorn movie after the thematic complexity of Fight Club and he succeeded. Panic Room is famous for a fully digital shot that moves all the way through our leads’ four-story home, with the omniscient camera moving through chairs, doors and keyholes. The film in its entirety works so well because it allows Fincher to bring his cold aesthetic to a Hitchcockian thriller. It’s anchored by great lead performances from Jodie Foster and a young Kristen Stewart, who work perfectly with an airtight screenplay from Jurassic Park’s David Koepp. Every second of this film contains pure tension, and Fincher uses all of the tools at his disposal to execute that.
After a five-year layoff, Fincher returned with a film that caught general audiences off guard. This wasn’t a film solely about the Zodiac killer going around and murdering innocent people. Instead, James Vanderbilt’s screenplay follows two journalists and a police inspector as they are taunted by the infamous killer and become obsessed with the case. The film’s mediocre box office performance is probably due to the fact this wasn’t a short and sharp slasher. It’s one of the greatest films ever about obsession, and its sprawling 158-minute runtime allows us to fall into the dark and treacherous world of San Francisco. It’s also one of the best films ever to perfectly capture the ‘70s period, accompanied with Fincher’s classic chilling atmosphere and paranoia. My favourite fun fact about Zodiac is that Fincher thought Jake Gyllenhaal’s hands were too pretty, so he digitally added hair to his knuckles during post production. It definitely worked because Gyllenhaal gives one his best performances ever, along with fantastic supporting turns from future MCU alums Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Immediately, there’s a big change in this compared to all of Fincher’s work up until this point. There’s no criminals, no murder, no investigation—this is a love story. Even to this day, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an odd sidestep in Fincher’s career. It’s easily his biggest budgeted film of all at $165 million, and it definitely comes across as Fincher wanting to play with some serious VFX toys while grounding it in a heartfelt love story that spans decades. Obviously, everyone knows the hook—it’s a man who ages backwards. There’s a truly melancholic nature from the outset that isn’t fully present in Fincher’s other works. Eric Roth’s screenplay (based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story) is a sprawling odyssey. Besides insisting that we shouldn’t take our lives for granted, it doesn’t really have much to say. It’s very much like Fincher’s version of Forrest Gump (which Roth also wrote) with a darker tone. I can’t say it’s in Fincher’s top tier, but that ending sure does hit hard.
The Social Network (2010)
If there’s a film in the last ten years that has aged better than The Social Network I’d like you to tell me, because I don’t think there is one. I remember as an 11-year-old, people were laughing over the idea of a movie centred around Facebook. What makes this film so special is that the film being about the creation of Facebook is merely window dressing for a truly Shakespearean tale of friendship, betrayal and greed. The paring of Fincher and master screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men) seemed odd on paper, but the results were more spectacular than anyone expected. It also marks the first time Fincher collaborated with composers Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, who deliver a stunning lo-fi electronic score which to this day is my favourite to write to. The decision to turn Mark Zuckerberg into more of a villain than a hero garnered major controversy, but that decision has aged almost as well as the film itself. And I don’t know if Jesse Eisenberg is ever going to top his performance in this—it’s a perfect performance in what I’m happy to call a perfect film.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
I don’t know if there’s a more perfect pairing of novel to director than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is to David Fincher. After two detours into straight dramas, he returned with a wholly psychosexual mystery that also functions as a story about repressed trauma. You have a classic detective story setup: a journalist is tasked with finding out what happened to a woman from a wealthy family who disappeared 40 years ago. In the process, he recruits a young master hacker to solve the mystery. Much like Zodiac and Se7en, Fincher adores focusing on procedure rather than the empty thrills a mystery story like this could have in less assured hands. Rooney Mara is absolutely electric in the lead role, perfectly portraying Lisbeth’s internal pain and her subtle wit. Fincher and his often-recurring cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth give the icy Swedish locales a haunting air about them. As with every Fincher thriller, the mood and atmosphere completely adds to the mystery. The fact Sony didn’t follow up on the two sequels will always infuriate me. What could’ve been…
Gone Girl (2014)
Scratch that first line before, this has to be the perfect pairing. Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl was everywhere after it was released in June 2012, and less than three years later we had the perfect film adaptation of the novel. Unlike many novel to film adaptations, Flynn also wrote the screenplay solo and worked with Fincher throughout to perfectly put her vision of the novel on screen. It’s a risky move, but in retrospect it was an absolute masterstroke. While Gone Girl could be simply described as a mystery thriller, it’s so much more than that. Flynn totally turns the genre on its head, not even worrying about the mystery, but placing the audience in the psychological headspace of two very complex individuals. It’s less about the mystery, which happily gives itself away early on. It’s one of the best red herrings in film history, and focusing on Amy is why this film works so well. Rosamund Pike is a true powerhouse as Amy, delivering one of the coldest and most subtly menacing performances of the century. Ben Affleck is also perfectly cast as someone you want to love and absolutely hate at the same time. It was Fincher’s biggest box office hit, grossing $370 million worldwide on a $61 million budget. The Girl on the Train tried to do this and failed. That’s the power of Fincher.
For Fincher’s return to the big screen (or small because it’s on Netflix), we have a passion project he’s wanted to make for 20 years. Once again, he steers away from a thriller-centric narrative to deliver a story about Herman J. Mankiewicz—the perennially alcoholic co-writer of Citizen Kane. Mank is written by Fincher’s late father Jack (who died in 2003) and was the film he wanted to make after The Game all the way back in the late ‘90s. It’s a film that isn’t just about Citizen Kane, but actively replicates Kane in its non-linear structure and visual style. It’s filled with deep focus and even replicates the scratchy sound quality films of the 1940s tend to have. Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross only used period-accurate instruments to create their score. I have a feeling it won’t be well received by general Netflix viewers. It’s very much a film for scholars and lovers of the medium. It’s not my favourite of his, but it was gleeful seeing Fincher get to recreate a type of film from an era he’s clearly so passionate about. It’s also something I’m so glad I saw in a cinema with the sound crackling out of loud speakers. It’s one for the film lovers.
My David Fincher ranking:
- The Social Network
- Gone Girl
- Fight Club
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
- Panic Room
- The Game
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- Alien 3