We’ve been working on this one for a while and thought another post in our “Anthology” series would be a great way to kick off 2019. We are nearly two decades into the 21st century, and if you were going to pick the top ten most influential directors of that time period, you have to include David Fincher (even if two of his best films were from the ’90s). Starting with his debut film Alien 3 in 1992, Fincher nearly single-handedly created a new visual motif for films – drawing on influences like Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and many black and white noir films. Granted, his rain-soaked, inky-blacks and overall feel of dread began with some of his music videos – Madonna’s metropolis-homage “Express Yourself” comes to mind. Many other directors have tried to copy his look, but end up just creating poorly lit scenes. In Fincher’s films, though, it’s not just darkness, there’s also a marked lushness and specificity to his visuals. He embraces the concept of showing, not telling, and crafts his films so they can tell a story even with the sound turned off. Look no further than his masterful credit sequence openings, which often are mini-stories in themselves. Here is our look into all of the theatrical films of David Fincher.
Alien 3 (1992) – Mike G.
After the hugely successful franchise reset of Aliens in 1986, there were huge expectations for Alien 3. However, David Fincher’s directorial debut was not “Aliens 2”, and that disappointed a lot of fans (and probably the studio too). I’ll admit I probably shared this disappointment at the time of its release, as I absolutely loved Aliens, but over the years I’ve watched this a number of times and have come to appreciate the artistry and Fincher establishing his signature cinematic visual style. With this rather dour story of loss, despair, and death on a truly forlorn place in the universe, Fincher’s visual approach was a perfect match. As I wrote about in one of our first blogs, he starts the film with an intense credit sequence that is a story in itself. Another standout scene was the autopsy sequence, where Fincher used stark under-lighting to highlight the emotions tearing at Ripley, making the sequence more heartbreaking than gruesome. As a director of actors, Fincher wasn’t quite all the way there yet, but he did get meaningful chemistry out of Sigourney Weaver and Charles Dance, even if it was cut short too soon. The rest of the prisoners and staff were not overly distinctive, outside of Charles Dutton’s intense and unlikely ally of Ripley. I’ve read about and watched the “making of” Alien 3 and know that the studio not only underfunded the special effects (and it shows) but did not allow Fincher to fully realize his vision for the film. To his credit, even now he does not badmouth the producers that made it tough for him. As a debut film, it’s a solid achievement and gave us a distinctive visual style we would see throughout his subsequent directorial efforts.
DJ: I may be one of the few people that enjoyed all four of the original Alien films. I really liked this film and at the time I had no clue who David Fincher was, some music video director. Although I didn’t necessarilly like Ripley’s arc I did like the atmosphere and style he created. Imagine what he could have done with a real budget.
Se7en (1995) – DJ
What more can I say about Se7en that I didn’t already say in our post Disturbing Movies earlier this year? It’s one of my favorite movies of all-time. This film, despite his previous film debut, made me aware of David Fincher for the first time. His tone, the atmosphere, even the opening credits would give Fincher his trademark style that would be used in many of his films. The writing in this film is minimalist, at times, yet wordy when it needs to be. Fincher’s use of space and framing especially in the final quarter of the movie is stunning. Although dark, it’s a beautiful film. He even got the best out of Brad Pitt who at first appears not to be acting well, which is the beauty of his performance, and it pays off. My heart sinks each time I see the finale. A great film makes you feel, it turns on your senses, and Se7en does that for me.
MG: The premise of the seven deadly sins could have made for a rote genre film, but Fincher made a work of art out of it. By his second film, he showed he could coax excellent performances out of actors – as you indicated, Brad Pitt was not a sure thing for good acting at that stage of his career. He crafted Kevin Spacey’s brief role – almost a cameo really – into a star-making turn for Spacey. Even Gwyneth Paltrow’s small supporting role was impactful and memorable.
The Game (1997) – Mike G.
The Game was another screenplay that easily could have come off as really contrived and/or cheesy in another director’s hands. The truth is, the story IS really contrived if you stop and think about it, but Fincher lures you in with his lush visuals and smooth camerawork, he hooks you in the first five minutes. Add in a nicely played performance by Michael Douglas, and this film made for really entertaining viewing at the theater. Its structure makes it harder to get the same thrill on subsequent viewings, but I still stop and watch it when I hit on it during channel surfing. As with many of Fincher’s films, certain scenes always pop into my mind when I think of a particular title, and with The Game, it’s the scene when Douglas goes home and his house is trashed and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” is playing. Landing between the titans of Fincher’s catalog (Se7en and Fight Club), The Game is easily the lightweight of this anthology, but still an entertaining experience with his iconic bold visuals.
DJ: Yeah I remember really liking this film, but due to its premise it’s one I have stayed away from. For a first time watcher it is worth it. Honestly I am not a huge Michael Douglas fan, but he is pretty good in this.
Fight Club (1999) – DJ
I was extremely excited to see Fight Club when it came out. Fincher was reuniting with Brad Pitt and it had that similar kind of darkness that was orchestrated in Se7en. Ed Norton is the main character who meets Tyler Durden played by Pitt. Durden gets Norton into an underground “fight club” where men go to fight to release their problems. This film is based on a book by Chuck Palahnluk and it’s a wild ride. It’s quote “First rule of Fight Club is—you do not talk about Fight Club.” is now an iconic film quote. Even the Dust Brothers score broke new ground in film music. You get another crazy performance from Helena Bonham Carter and get to see a young Jared Leto. When I saw this film the finale was almost as shocking as Se7en but for some reason, I now feel it’s more gimmicky a la The Sixth Sense. I still think it’s a great film and an important film in American movies.
MG: I love this film, even though I’ve been dismayed that it became a film that frat boys glommed onto because of the masculine storyline and fight scenes. Those douchebags see it as a “pro-guy” film and miss the subversive anti-establishment tale that it is. I really feel like Fincher put all his heart and soul in this one, and found a perfect lead in Ed Norton. Close to a perfect film from start to finish. And don’t forget the great performance by Meatloaf.
Panic Room (2002) – Mike G.
Ok, I may have spoken too soon with The Game by saying it was the lightweight of his canon. I’ve always held high regard for Jodie Foster and I expected great things from her being in a Fincher film, but for me, this one just doesn’t come together. It’s not a bad film, per se, but too forgettable and lacking in depth. If I’m being honest, other than the hiding out in the panic room from three intruders, including a psycho Jared Leto, I don’t really recall any more of the plot. I know the performances were good all around, even Dwight Yoakam as one of the intruders. Oh yeah, Kristin Stewart played the daughter, whose diabetes blood sugar issue was supposed to up the intensity but instead became an annoyingly over-emphasized plot element. It was still beautifully shot and had a few moments of peril, but I recall it lacking good plot twists. This was the genre film that both Fincher and Foster couldn’t raise to the next level.
DJ: I liked this film a lot but I do forget that it was directed by Fincher. I thought Foster was good in it. It had the tone and the atmosphere of a Fincher film but it’s definitely more of a “regular” movie than his past films.
Zodiac (2007) – DJ
I love true crime, especially the big cases, Son of Sam, Manson, Making of a Murderer, DB Cooper, and Zodiac Killer is no different. The more unsolved the more interesting. When I heard Fincher was making a film about it I was pumped. The film follows the viewpoint of Robert Graysmith who was a reporter who has written extensively about the case and has presented his own version of who the main suspect was. His book is the source material. This film has a great cast and maybe my second favorite Fincher film. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Graysmith and also has Robert Downey Jr. in another pre-Iron Man comeback role. Fincher shows how this case consumes Graysmith. The film like Se7en had a great tone and is able to recreate the 1970’s California vibe. The Zodiac killer is still a case that people try to solve today. The History channel recently had a series where they had researchers trying to solve it, including trying to decode the killer’s cryptograms. Fincher and his crew launched an 18-month investigation into the killings prior to shooting this film.
MG: This is by far Fincher’s most underrated film and one that gets forgotten. It was a comeback for both Downey Jr. and for Fincher, after the disappointing Panic Room and the odd 5-year hiatus between the two films. I never understood why this film did so little at the box office, although it did make it onto a lot of critics 10-best lists that year. Another standout in the excellent cast was relative newcomer Mark Ruffalo. There are a ton of great supporting and character actors in the rest of the cast. I have to check this film out again soon.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) – Mike G.
This was Fincher’s first time doing more of a straightforward drama and love story. The story itself didn’t fully resonate with me personally, but this was a film that both audiences and critics loved equally. It was showered with Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and two for acting, and was Fincher’s first film to garner him a Best Director nomination (Zodiac should have been his first). It ended up only winning three technical awards, including an obvious one for the aging, or reverse aging, make-up on Pitt. I have a weird thing with old-age make-up, so maybe that was why I didn’t connect as strongly with this as others did. Cate Blanchett was fantastic in this, as she always is. Fincher or whomever his casting director is, has a knack for stocking his supporting cast with strong players who would go onto bigger things – in this film it was Taraji P. Henson (Best Supporting Actress nominee) and Mahershala Ali who were both revelations.
DJ: Yeah this film didn’t resonate much with me either. Not sure I got it. I have read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story and it’s pretty different outside of the premise. It’s almost unfilmable. Fincher did a fine job bringing it to the screen and the actors are great, I love Henson and Ali, and like you said Blanchett is always great. I was hoping for something more, maybe cut out Blanchett and her daughter’s part of it and just tell a straight forward story.
The Social Network (2010) – DJ
This is the second time that Fincher used a true story. For me, this film was just a meh. I know it got showered with critical praise and it is generally pretty good but it didn’t wow me. Not a huge fan of Jesse Eisenberg – maybe it’s the Lex Luthor in him. I get that Mark Zuckerberg is a weird dude so I guess it makes sense. The creation of Facebook is just not that exciting for me. I liked Andrew Garfield in it and Justin Timberlake is always fun to see in a film. It’s between this and Benjamin Button for my least favorite Fincher film. I just find no reason to ever revisit it. Despite that, it’s well made and Aaron Sorkin’s script is excellent. There is not a Fincher film I dislike, he always makes well-crafted films and each one is worth seeing, The Social Network is no different.
MG: I almost feel like Fincher was challenging himself by taking on more of a character-study type of film with this. There is also the challenge of having a lead that becomes more unlikeable as the story goes on. Once again, the casting was great, and I think Eisenberg made a perfect Zuckerberg, plus he launched Garfield’s career and got a performance out of Justin Timberlake that should have been honored with a Best Supporting nomination. Trent Reznor’s score was excellent in this film as well.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) – Mike G.
Like millions of fans, I devoured Steig Larsson’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo book series and looked forward to seeing these stories on film. I watched the Swedish trilogy of films with Noomi Rapace as the take-no-prisoners heroine Lisbeth Salander, and they set a pretty high bar. Rapace, in particular, really brought this iconic character to life on the screen in a believable way that was true to the book. So when Hollywood decided to make their own English-language versions, I was wary, but then heard Fincher was directing and that put me at ease. I was confident he was the right choice to transfer the dark, sometimes gruesomely disturbing story/themes to the film. Yet, oddly enough, the master of the grim and gloomy turned in a finished product that felt rather sanitized compared to the books and the Swedish version. Worse, I felt Daniel Craig’s character overshadowed Rooney Mara’s title character, and that was a significant misstep. The books were Lisbeth’s story, and this was a coveted role every younger actress in Hollywood had vied for. Though I’m a big fan of Craig, he was too much of a star to be cast in what needed to be a supporting role. Fincher and his crew were always so good at casting too, and this was his one misfire. Visually, the film was absolutely stunning, and if you didn’t read the book, it probably played pretty well as an intense thriller. Oddly enough, the two sequels were never made, despite it making over $200 million at the box office and receiving pretty good reviews.
DJ: I agree with most of what you said. I loved the book and the Swedish version as well. I was not excited to see this based on the fact there was already a great version. But I liked the film a lot, it was beautifully done. I am not sure Daniel Craig was right for the role, I didn’t love Robin Wright in it, she felt out of place. If you going to do an English version, might as well get rid of non-Swedish actors trying to do Swedish accents. I did enjoy Mara’s take on the character. It’s weird that they threw away the last two Larsson books to film the 4th non-Larsson book, which Fincher was a producer on.
Gone Girl (2014) – DJ
Another film where I read the book first. As I have said before I don’t read a ton of newer fiction but I did pick up a copy of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl prior to the film and loved it. It was different, surprising and very dark. I thought it may be unfilmable. After seeing the film I was wrong. Fincher did a great job bringing this to the screen. My only regret is knowing the outcome. It certainly takes the surprises out of the picture. I thought Ben Affleck was strong as Nick Dunn, the aggrieved husband of Rosamund Pike’s Amy. The cast is strong especially Carrie Coon as Nick’s sister Margo, and Fear the Walking Dead’s Kim Dickens as the lead detective. Having Flynn also screenwrite helped keep the author’s vision intact. Trent Reznor continuing to put out great soundtracks also helps the tone. My one thing about Fincher movies that bugs me is they all are filmed really dark, I mean literally dark. I know most of his films are in the dark but even Benjamin Button is dark. I want to see what’s going on. Gone Girl has the same issue. It’s a minor quibble but it had been bugging me. It’s been a while since he has made a film, I know he focused on the HBO series Mindhunter but he needs something. Rumor has it he will be filming a sequel to World War Z soon which makes no sense. He would be better off remaking it.
MG: Gone Girl comes to mind immediately when thinking about the best book-to-film adaptations. Fincher put his signature stamp on it while preserving the integrity of the book. Rosamund Pike was a force in this, but I have to also give Affleck credit for knowing his character’s place in the story and not trying to make his role bigger because he was the well-known star. I often lament intentionally dark/murky filming (see Solo: A Star Wars Story), but I’ve always felt Fincher did it well – and he lets you see what you need to see. Some of his imagery is so crisp and sharp, it’s amazing. I know he launched House of Cards and did Mindhunter, both were great, but I miss seeing Fincher films at the theater.