There is no mistaking the visual style of David Fincher, but it’s rare that we discuss his narrative method.
Fincher specialises in conflict. His modus operandi is simply to consider his lead character an antagonist rather than a protagonist. Things are never as simple as good versus evil, but those who pass for heroes are often at odds with everyone else in his films. They become the villain, aliens within the narrative world so to speak, and their efforts to restore a state of equilibrium are unsuccessful. Or at least not as they would expect. Nihilism and despair often follow; Fincher’s moral ambiguity is elegant, but never pretty. While his leads are the ones causing the most trouble, this makes us, the poor audience, squirm a little more. And we love every second. It’s as if Tyler Durden himself were directing each film, whispering promises of anarchy to the viewer as he would Edward Norton’s hapless narrator in Fight Club.
Fincher is not the only one. It is an obvious function in the horror genre, but putting that aside, the method is used in Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. Travis Bickle is an innocently reprehensible individual. And while not the lead character nor self-destructive, Star Wars used Han Solo to make sure everyone else knew how silly they were. Han’s character role is vital to the success of the saga, including his development in The Force Awakens.
While not the only director who follows this method then, David Fincher is the only one who appears to relish applying it to almost every film he makes. He turns the screw another quarter of a turn every time, emphasising perversion, underscoring eccentricity and exposing flaws. He holds up a mirror to our world to show us how ugly it can be and how fragile our morals are; how easy for an outsider to unravel everything upon which we rely. Sometimes the reality may appear too heightened, too contrived, but consider that might be the point. Our perception as the viewer is there to be undermined as much as that of his characters.
Let’s take a look at his films to see who is causing the most trouble. Spoilers abound unhindered from here, including for his latest film, The Killer.
(1992, written by David Giler, Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson from a story by Vincent Ward)
The primary threat in monster movies is the monster, or at least its mastermind keeper. Not so in Alien 3; the real cause of conflict is Ripley and she is the true Alien. Her presence is far more abhorrent than the thing with which she happened to crash land.
The poor fellows imprisoned on the planet make for entertaining xenomorph snacks, but they welcome this “Dragon”. Death is part of a cycle for which they have prepared with religious zeal. Meanwhile, the alien is also right at home, being the most efficient lifeform in the universe, thank you very much. But a woman? That screws up all of them. Even the creature is rendered impotent when it meets her.
Alien 3 wasn’t a good first impression from newbie David Fincher. That’ll happen when you kill off fan favourite characters, “have no weapons of any kind” and expect the audience to sympathise with a bunch of interchangeable bald English guys. Oops. Even the director disowned it.
Its reputation is undeserved. It is a mess, but a brilliant one; Alien and Aliens is a heck of a double-bill and tough to follow. Perhaps all that’s wrong with the film is that Fincher dragged Alien fans kicking and screaming right where they didn’t want to go. He did at least set up a method of character and structure with which he has stuck, including refusing to hold the audience’s collective hand. It was easy to dismiss in Alien 3 because you would expect those kinds of shenanigans in the horror genre.
In all of his films, Fincher gleefully lays bare even his most innocent character’s morals and punishes them for it. It is the doomed Ripley that must accept her destiny, more so than the prisoners.
At this stage, it’s easy to dismiss any of David Fincher’s aesthetic as part of the horror genre. And yet, he uses the same method even when he made dramas and wistful romantic comedies. This will get ugly…
(1995, written by Andrew Kevin Walker)
A serial killer hunt is just another monster movie and as with the Alien, Kevin Spacey’s John Doe is our villain, but not our antagonist. Neither is Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman), who instead reflects Doe’s rituals and habits; duality is another recurring theme in a David Fincher film (Alien 3, Fight Club, Gone Girl, etc). For Somerset, it’s the routine of preparing his clothes in the morning. For John Doe, it’s tying a man to a chair and patiently force-feeding him until he bursts. Horses for courses.
Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) is the antagonist, the outsider who can release either of the other two men from their routine. His eagerness and idealism set him at odds with those who already occupy this circle of hell. In the downbeat ending Somerset is powerless to stop Mills rewarding John Doe by freeing him and maybe taking his place. Somerset remains trapped in purgatory by his own nobility.
David Fincher’s ferocious thriller is his first foray into the world of serial killers. With something to prove after Alien 3, the aggression and nihilism is startling to this day. It’s a perfect example of Fincher’s approach: he follows typical narrative theory in establishing, disrupting and repairing an equilibrium. What sets it apart is that it isn’t obvious who is disrupting. Is it possible to repair the equilibrium? Not in this cursed city it can’t.
Seven is ruthless like nothing before, but not without precedent. Fincher still has one foot in the horror genre, following in the steps of The Silence of The Lambs to blur the line between heroes and villains. Time has proved he is second-to-none for exploring a fascination with serial killers and the flawed minds needed to catch them.
The pattern in his audacious approach was always sophisticated and soon, he will really push the buttons of the audience.
(1997, written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris)
This curious oddity is far from a failure, but it tends to get forgotten, falling in-between the behemoths of Se7en and Fight Club. David Fincher’s third film, a twisted It’s a Wonderful Life, is his most underrated. The plot contrived so much misfortune for the lead character, it came off a little too perverse. He got away with it in his first two features using a horror theme and he’s asking the audience to accept it in a thriller. The world of The Game is the most real for the audience yet.
Rather than embracing the contrast his outsider creates for others, Fincher emphasises it even more by making everyone one step ahead throughout. Nicholas van Orton (Michael Douglas) is happy, being rich, dull and ignorant until the mysterious Game rudely pulls him out of his own life. He explicitly becomes his own antagonist.
Perhaps it’s van Orton’s younger brother causing the trouble, played by Sean Penn. He’s not in the film enough to drive the story alone, but his existence brings in the duality Fincher likes using. It is Penn that can see both van Orton’s bleak existence and the Game he instigates to mix things up in his brother’s life. As far as the script is concerned, they are a partnership like the detectives in Se7en. Either way, Fincher’s direction captures the short-sighted sensationalism of the story and runs with it. The ending is clumsy and unconvincing but presses the point home. Only in a David Fincher film can avoiding suicide be considered a win.
(1999, screenplay by Jim Uhls, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk)
If ever a character embodied David Fincher’s style of directing, it has to be Tyler Durden. He’s Fincher’s most obvious antagonist, teasing the hapless Edward Norton, but if you’ve seen Fight Club, you know it’s not quite that simple. This is another narrative partnership, like Se7en. Durden is a hallucination and Norton is the “Narrator”, not the first or last unnamed Fincher character (a specific change from the script, in which Norton was playing “Jack”). We never learn his name because Fincher saw him as an everyman. He represents the viewer.
Fincher wasn’t the first to apply horror tropes to a detective thriller as he did with Se7en, and even The Game leans on set-pieces and evocative imagery. Fight Club is his most audacious project, trusting the audience to go with a drama driven by character but has enough fizz to want to be a thriller. It split critics but we should be disappointed if it didn’t. The cult following it earned proved it was a success and Fincher has since always treated drama as a thriller sandpit. Fight Club’s single-minded focus is so playful, it borders on being perverse.
“The things you own end up owning you” indeed. The satire is telling us that as much as anyone within the story. It continues the theme of The Game, except it’s the viewer getting picked on this time. Distorting the contrived eccentricity of North By North West, Fight Club shows Fincher’s appreciation of Hitchcock themes, directing as if he were sat in the audience.
(2002, written by David Koepp)
It’s an efficient, enjoyable thriller, but there’s little that makes Panic Room standout as a “David Fincher Film” which he himself called a good date movie, not that we should entirely trust his comments. There is no unusual antagonist to speak of and the smudging of heroes and villains is rather routine. It’s a survival story with the titular panic room providing the intriguing hook.
A film theory is only worth applying if it lends itself to the subject and it doesn’t in Panic Room. You shouldn’t have to go looking for the antagonistic element in the plot of a David Fincher film. Others have written excellent dissections of the themes and metaphors within the film, but it even has a happy ending.
(2007, screenplay by James Vanderbilt, based on the book by Robert Graysmith)
We’re back in the world of murder and, as with the Alien or John Doe, the Zodiac killer is taking advantage of an environment that accepts his existence. It’s the one chasing him that’s the real weirdo.
Zodiac was David Fincher’s first film based on nonfiction; Robert Graysmith’s book on the unsolved Zodiac killings is considered one of the closest possible explanations. Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the first real-life candidate for a Fincher antagonist, the kind of lunatic he loves. He worked at the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of the killings, but not as a hard-nosed journalist. He was a cartoonist. What on earth was he doing messing around with serial killers?
Hitchcock would explore murder on your doorstep and how the macabre fascinates normal people, and Dario Argento followed suit. In Deep Red, it’s a musician who can’t help investigating when he should walk away. Graysmith didn’t even have the excuse he was targeted by the killer or saw something. He was just a cartoonist and put everything at risk to follow up his crazy theory. Also, consider that the Zodiac killer wasn’t caught, so Graysmith saw no quick reward for his efforts perhaps until the publication of his book. The film captures that lovely irony in the last killer shot. Jake Gyllenhaal was a cracking choice to play this oddball as he, perhaps by chance, gravitates to Fincher-esque characters. Nightcrawler follows a Taxi Driver aesthetic and Donnie Darko qualifies too.
The true story behind the San Francisco murders must have been irresistible for Fincher. He could get away with twisting the knife just a little further to stress the perverse undercurrent in the plot. In a natural progression from Hitchcock and Argento, he delights in emphasising the touch of insanity that all his best characters display, but also ensures the audience can recognise themselves. Zodiac also represented a shift into a more sophisticated, electrified style.
2007 was an incredible year for American cinema. There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford are all classics, as is Zodiac. They lay bare the flaws of the American psyche and recall the self-critical, fertile independent cinema of the 1970s. For example, Dirty Harry, which was both an early exploitation film and inspired by the same killings depicted in Zodiac. They are comparable projects the directors could have shared, but only Fincher exploits his lead character’s alienation to such lengths.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
(2008, written by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, based on a short-story by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
After a break of a few years, David Fincher returned with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It was popular, well-made, and remains his worst by a considerable margin.
Adapted from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, it seems to be sweet and romantic, a gentle tale of time and nostalgia. That doesn’t sound right for Fincher, but you can see why he was attracted to it when you consider Button as one of his antagonists; his curious case of an upside-down life is the opposite of what those around him expect. However, it just emphasises how much of a jerk the guy is.
Button is misogynistic, irresponsible and bears his affliction with such pious sentimentality, we should be inclined to vomit. Fincher’s rejection of a protagonist is the fundamental undoing of the story as his lead character forces people to accommodate his behaviour. None more so than poor Daisy (Cate Blanchett).
Already misrepresented as being aloof, she has the temerity to dream of being a dancer, rather than dream of Benjamin, until a butterfly flaps its wings and she loses the use of her legs. That pesky fate, eh? Button then abandons her to raise his daughter alone. In the end, Button is saved from the ignominy of old age thanks to Alzheimer’s. Meanwhile, Daisy is inveigled to be his nurse and gets to watch a baby die. Unusually for a David Fincher screenplay, Benjamin is granted an easy exit. He dies unknown even to himself, a late and feeble effort to garner sympathy. Or is it?
Miracle backwards aging aside, Button demands unearned respect merely by existing and the viewer is also expected to be impressed. It recalls Fight Club where Edward Norton misinterprets the stern advice of a doctor and pretends to have a terminal disease just so he can feel part of something. That was satire, the behaviour presented as immoral and uncomfortable. This is a feel-good fantasy, supposedly.
What an abhorrent, dishonest film. It’s worse when you consider that Eric Roth also adapted Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump. As with Button, the short story was changed and movie-Gump can be accused of being a thinly veiled male fantasy; a life free of direct responsibility, he’s popular just for being himself. He too doesn’t have to raise his own child, because his beloved, flighty Jenny thoughtfully didn’t reveal her son until she had the decency to die rather than encroach on Forrest’s freedom. Forrest is left with a kid that can dress himself, but no nagging wife.
That’s a cynical and unfair reading of Forrest Gump. The film is wonderful. Even while talking about it, I can hear the theme and recall Tom Hanks’ joyful performance. He makes Forrest a generous soul so the film can use him as an ode to America. It rests on his shoulders, and Robin Wright Penn’s Jenny has a tragic story, but it resonates. That’s down to Robert Zemeckis’ chocolate box direction that delivers charm for an audience that wants and knows what they will get. It is easy to be cynical, but it’s a clever film, rich in irony and occasional flashes of dark humour. In contrast, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is selfish and only offers out-of-date coffee creams. David Fincher is not one to hide behind schmaltz, but that’s what the story needed in this case.
Maybe Fincher knew what he was doing and was annoyed that his film was taken at face value. In a reaction you’d expect in one of his films, Fincher was proud of the negative critical reception Fight Club attracted. So much so, he had a quote by critic Alexander Walker framed (see the making of The Social Network). In a rare moment of nepotism, did he make The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as if Tyler Durden had directed it? He often seems to, but here the joke is probably on us, making the film an unlikely masterpiece as it disappears up its own backside.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK
(2010, screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, based on The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich)
It’s an unlikely but poetic idea that Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) should be painted as a lovesick nerd. That he created Facebook just to track down a crush, screwing over his best friend in the meantime. It shows how The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was all a matter of perspective because the format of both films bears comparison. We’re supposed to grow to dislike Zuckerberg; he’s supposed to make us wince.
The Social Network is the film for this generation. If the zeitgeist exists, the irony captured here is painful. A pain likely to mature the more we are inclined to be social with thousands of strangers via technology. The impact on art and culture will be extraordinary, but this early dissection is so simple and human it will be the definitive commentary for some time. A David Fincher adaptation couldn’t be more suitable. Adapted from Ben Mezrich’s book by Aaron Sorkin, the story of how Facebook came to be is perfect for Fincher’s cynical view of how people affect one another.
The wonderful coda suggests the billion-dollar organisation that literally shares our lives is in the hands of a fool. And we all ignore the warning. This is Fincher’s Fight Club 2; we hand an idiotic Tyler Durden the power of 1984’s Big Brother in exchange for an illusion of entitlement and cat videos.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
(2011, screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on the book by Stieg Larsson)
Stieg Larsson passed away before he could see what a phenomenon his Millennium Trilogy would become. The brilliant Swedish film adaptation in 2009 was a worldwide success. So, flattery being Hollywood’s only currency of praise, an English language remake was in production almost at once. Though superfluous, the remake is understandable when you factor in that David Fincher was the director. The story of how it came to be is rather dry, full of the usual guff about the potential of the story (arrogantly implying the first film missed the mark). It’s more likely that Fincher needed to scratch a very irritating itch. The Swedish language version is the best film he didn’t direct.
The format of the story is a textbook example of how to use an antagonist. You have a newspaper journalist uncovering a routine scandal and the sexualized misogyny typical of Scandi-Noir, but into the mix comes Lisbeth Salander. What an incredible character. She is an unpredictable outlaw, legally and emotionally, and has nothing to gain from the main plot. Lisbeth isn’t constrained by the etiquette society might expect from her, especially her sexuality. She is the Millenium Trilogy’s punk Han Solo.
Fincher could never ignore her potential and his resulting film is excellent. It feels overcooked, though that may be because Niels Arden Oplev version is so clean by comparison (which emphasises the contrast with Salander). It’s difficult to say which film is better, but Fincher’s wasn’t first and Oplev’s is more effective.
A sequel was mooted and it was a shame it fell through as there was an opportunity to capitalise on the plot where the original film trilogy failed. Part two treats Salander as a lead character and the plot becomes as crazy as she is to contain her. It doesn’t work, leading into a downright odd part three. The nuances of the albeit pulp original novels fail to transfer and Fincher could have found a great deal of potential.
(2014, Screenplay by Gillian Flynn, based on her own book)
A straight adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s book, and she handled the screenplay too, but it might yet be Fincher’s most perfect example of his method. The delicious, character-led irony is uncomfortable for the audience, despite the vicarious thrill of the extraordinary violence.
Whose fault is the narrative carnage this time? That’s less interesting than why, but it’s Rosamund Pike’s Amy, a rare lead female role in Fincher’s filmography. She is in full control from the moment she engineers her own disappearance to when she returns. That’s extraordinary screenwriting; it embraces contrivance and revels in it with brazen disregard for convention, allowing a single character to disrupt, repair and re-establish the film’s equilibrium. The result is invigorating, thrilling cinema that makes a mockery of calling the film a drama. But that’s what it is because, aside from the visual panache of Amy’s more stabby moments, this is a study of marriage and of secrets. The message is deeply cynical.
Amy has the mentality of a sociopath and Pike’s glorious performance is the physical realisation of what Fincher likes to achieve. No more so than when she calmly exits a car, soaked in blood. A complete surprise to the media gathered at her home and especially to her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck). Subverting gender politics and attacking marriage itself, the story has been running rings around Nick. He isn’t innocent, but his punishment is extreme with another Fincher ending that dooms him to a loveless, inescapable marriage.
HOUSE OF CARDS and MINDHUNTER
The legacy of Netflix’s first major success has been tarnished, but House of Cards is still worth talking about because of the delicious conceit in breaking the fourth wall. Dipping his toe into television, Fincher found endless possibilities for manipulating both his own characters and the viewer.
The classic British series of House of Cards starred the much missed Ian Richardson, who relished involving the audience in his thoughts. Like with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, how could Fincher not remake it? The story of a Machiavellian politician, manipulating everyone around him is perfect territory.
David Fincher’s next TV project was the brilliant Mindhunter based on the book by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas. Set in 1979, it follows two FBI agents (Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany). They interview jailed murderers (ala The Silence of the Lambs) to get inside and understand the mind of a killer. It’s the start of profiling, something taken for granted now.
If that wasn’t already rich Fincher territory, the agents have to fight to prove their method works. Antagonists then, unsupported by the establishment.
(2020, screenplay by Jack Fincher)
David Fincher’s return to features after a couple of years in long-form TV was to be a passion project. A biography of Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles’ screenwriter for Citizen Kane. This one was personal. Welles has been a constant touchstone in Fincher’s work and the screenplay was written by his father, Jack Fincher. So we could forgive him for finally relaxing his approach? Of course not!
Mank is a minor masterpiece and the self-destructive Herman (Gary Oldman) proves to be a Fincher archetype, determined to torpedo his own career. Flipping across several timelines, the film centres on Herman holed up in a cabin, recuperating from a car accident, battling his nurse to access alcohol while the gambler in him makes ridiculous claims for how fast he can write Orson’s first draft of The American, as Citizen Kane was once known. Always at odds with the Hollywood elite, such as Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg and David O. Selznick, he unwisely bases the story on his relationship with William Randolph Hearst, the thinly veiled inspiration for Charles Foster Kane. Allegedly.
“You made yourself court jester!”
Jack Fincher’s screenplay is a brilliant thing. It mixes up the flashback structure of Citizen Kane like a Rubik’s cube and turns it into an entertainingly angry political grenade. The focus on a Republican takeover of Hollywood in a corrupt election makes the film contemporary, sharply present and gives it an energetic purpose. Off-putting for some, Fincher’s love of conflict is at odds with the Citizen Kane magic, a film wrapped in a smooth cloak of ethereal melancholy. And there is a sense of contrivance, but only to emphasise Herman’s self-immolation further. Maybe Hearst had earned Welles’ vitriol, but as played by a kind Charles Dance, he is no villain.
Both Citizen Kane and Mank feature flashbacks that lack coherence, as they should, while the narrative coagulates around a single question. In this case, why would Mank shit on his own doorstep by writing about Hearst? (Interesting how Welles is traditionally the assassin but here we see Mank given the room to make the bullets). His self destructive act(s) is the polar opposite of Kane‘s sentimental solution. The punch lands slower, less distinctively, but it does still land.
(2023, screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker, based on the graphic novel by Alexis “Matz” Nolent)
Back with a contemporary thriller, back with Andrew Kevin Walker, back to messing with our heads. What at first seems to be a simple “hit gone wrong” setup, segues into a revenge plot that transpires to be no such thing when it pulls its final punch, and the rug from beneath the viewer’s feet. David Fincher is fielding questions about this rug-pulling in some recent interviews in which he’s down-playing the attention. Let’s not kid ourselves. He loves creating such discourse, and that’s the point of the film.
Ostensibly an anti-hero, no matter how endearingly sympathetic Michael Fassbender plays him, the titular assassin is the villain. We’re inclined to think he is at least incapable of believing his own bullshit. While he is undeniably skilled, much of the film’s dark humour comes from the killer’s subconscious impatience with his own zen-like monologue, leading to mistakes. And yet, no part of his assumed scramble to clean-up truly fails, right down to the very last stone-cold shot of the film. A twitch instead of a wink leaves a very disconcerting coda.
The Killer is a fantastic film. Seemingly a light-touch for the director and his most simple since Panic Room, there are layers to peel back from an uncomfortable truth. The Killer is no clown and neither he nor the film should be dismissed as inconsequential. Indeed, it just goes to further prove that David Fincher himself is an antagonist, getting his kicks from winding us up and then claiming ignorance. Long may it continue.
For a time, David Fincher was connected to a World War Z sequel. Some thought it a strange choice, especially as the first film was a bloodless YA affair, but he appears to have favoured the horror genre without ever making a straightforward entry since the misunderstood Alien 3. It’s a shame the project fell through because a zombie is surely Fincher’s blunt, antagonistic spirit animal made manifest. You only have to consider the vicious social commentary that runs through the late George Romero’s films. Romero denied he had an axe to grind and yet it was there to be found.
Some zombies can be read as metaphors of laziness and literal embodiments of grasping responsibility, relentlessly chasing us down. Like Fight Club’s narrator wanting to be ill, because that’s something he’d be good at, or Benjamin Button being unable to support a relationship because he’s too special. Perhaps that’s why the zombie genre appears to target disaffected generations and people in limbo. Heroes without BTECs.
Why worry about a career when the zombie apocalypse will prove so many of us to be hitherto unknown monster slayers? Wouldn’t it be amazing if the future disappeared? You can see why David Fincher would want to get his teeth into it. He’s dismissed it in light of the marvellous The Last Of Us, but the zombie genre never dies, so let’s hope he finds similar inspiration in future. The Killer did seem like an opportunity to loosen up that he’ll want to do again.
For now, top of my wish-list would be the inevitable biography of 45th US President Donald J. Trump. The man is a living David Fincher antagonist who appears to have almost got away with playing a prank on the entire USA.