Darwin's Fincher

Alien 3, Seven, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl.  These are the 10 feature films from acclaimed film director David Fincher.  If you have any taste for movies, you already know this.  

In their totality, one can easily see the hallmarks of a Fincher movie – dark color palettes, methodical camera work, stories of the macabre, and a pristine polish in every scene.  While these are rarely mentioned and taken for granted, one could find endless discussions on his films, whether its ranking them based off of their quality, their influence on other films or even how they’ve affected the culture at large.  Panic Room is largely forgotten as a film of Fincher’s while Fight Club continues to surface as one of the most culturally significant movies in the last 20 years.  My personal favorite is Zodiac, but even that is without contention as I might swap it for Seven, given my mood.  In other words, when it comes to Fincher’s movies, there’s always something worth evaluating.

I find this clinical dissection of his films compelling.  What is it about Fight Club, for example, that continues to reverberate with audiences decades after its release?  Why is The Social Network particularly affecting, yet – even to the admission of Fincher himself – it is a movie in which the worst thing that happens to someone is they *only* make $50 million dollars?  What did we lose when he wasn’t given free reign by the studio to make Alien 3?  While all of these topics are fascinating in their own right, my attention is being drawn away from these familiar grounds to something that is often not discussed – what do we *not* talk about when it comes to Fincher’s movies.

For starters, what we don’t talk about is their humor.  Looking at all of these films, I can only recollect about a half dozen laughs between them.  This isn’t a criticism per se as the tone of a movie often doesn’t allow for laughs.  Is there humor to be found the retelling of the Zodiac murders?  But while not a criticism, it is an acknowledgment as to the range of human emotions in which Fincher feels comfortable exploring.  Perhaps one would argue that he *could* do a comedy,  perhaps a dark comedy, but that it just doesn’t fit his sensibilities – that acknowledging his lack of humorous content reflects stylistic choices, not a creative vacuum.  But even Kubrick, probably the most cerebral of directors, still found room for jokes in Dr. Strangelove.

I think it is fair to evoke Kubrick when talking about Fincher.  Both filmmakers are cold and methodical, even to a fault, when exploring the themes of their films.  However, where Kubrick allows the camera to remain a distant observer to the horrors on the screen, Fincher leans into them.  This results in Kubrick’s films allowing the audience to be self-reflective while Fincher’s are more visceral experiences – while both exhibit copious amount of violence.  I’m not sure I want to say one approach is better than the other, but I would like to ask whether we remember Kubrick’s films because they are culturally pivotal, or because of their craft?  Is Fincher’s legacy tied to the timing of his movies and their ability to tap into the zeitgeist, of for their quality alone?  In Kubrick’s films, they have outlived whatever cultural significance they may have enjoyed at the time of release.  Fincher’s films need more time to be sure.

Looking past the differences between Kubrick and Fincher, I want to return to Fincher by acknowledging something both of these directors share.  Neither of them are particularly interested in elevating their audience.  Think about the endings to these films.  Alien 3, Ripley dies.  Seven, murder of Mill’s wife.  Social Network – destruction of a friendship.  Gone Girl and Zodiac, the killer gets away with it.  I may have dodged the endings to Panic Room and Dragon Tattoo, but make no mistake that Fincher is more interested in the torment of its heroines, than in their glorious vindications.

Fincher lacks either the desire, interest or, dare I say, talent, to lift the spirits of its audience.  There isn’t a moment in any of his films that aims for the gut to compel the audience to fight back tears.  This is despite the sincere and serious approach of tackling many devastatingly violent and dark scenarios.  The closest he's come to these ends is in Benjamin Button, which an unusually hollow affair.

Fincher and Kubrick both sidestep this element of storytelling.  Kubrick, I believe, understood this limitation of his, which is why he encouraged Spielberg to make A.I., instead of himself.  Spielberg was able to find those gut-wrenching notes in the film’s final sequence that so many people assumed had been added by him (it wasn’t, it was in Kubrick’s draft).  Like Kubrick, Fincher is similarly flawed.

Positing that Fincher is a flawed director is sure to elicit a response.  Indeed, saying any of his films are good, bad or that one be otherwise indifferent towards them, are equally likely to spark a conversation.  Fincher, if he were to have faults, does not struggle to make films that are compelling.    He may have a limited range of emotions in which he can play, but the discussions about his films are limitless.