David Fincher isn’t often described as a playful director. On the surface, his ten feature films appear to be linked more by technical aesthetics than by theme, with the clinically meticulous arrangement of his shots acting as foils to the messy, atavistic interior lives of his characters. In his work, the beauty and symmetry of his visuals embody the very human impulse to impose a false order on the chaotic ugliness of our psychologies. “He’s all about the doomed desire to frame the incomprehensible so as to understand it,” would be one way of thinking about Fincher. Another would suggest that his movies are at their most “Finchery” when they’re playing with their audiences, fucking with their emotions, heads, and expectations. When you watch his movies, you aren’t afraid of what might be in the box, you’re afraid because you already know what’s inside. This is the high director-audience gamesmanship Fincher revels in. Let’s look at his movies.
Worst to First: David Fincher Movies
Editor’s Note: I haven’t seen Alien 3 recently enough to have an opinion on it.
Gone Girl (2014)
Justifications for this shall be released later today.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Ceaseless, drab, and sometimes outright laughable, Benjamin Button evolved out of Fincher’s frustration over Zodiac‘s lack of awards recognition. This somehow led him to a love story–never his forte–about a computer generated man-baby who ages into a computer generated baby-man. Outside of some occasional visual loveliness and a brief sequence with Tilda Swinton, Benjamin Button is aggressively unwatchable. It did, however, receive 13 Academy Award nominations, walking away with three statues, all for visual effects. Desperation does indeed make for strange bedfellows.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
As a pure entertainment, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo mostly pulls its weight, which is an accomplishment when one considers its day-swallowing length. Lisbeth Salander is a memorable heroine, but that memorability is undercut by the effort the movie expends telling you how memorable she is. Featuring a directionless whodunnit plot fueled almost entirely by deus ex machina, Dragon Tattoo is Fincher’s most adequately forgettable work. That said, I cry every time Lisbeth throws the leather jacket into the dumpster.
Fight Club (1999)
Any of Fincher’s movies from this point forward could justifiably top a Best of Fincher List, Fight Club included. By packaging transgressive psychology for mouth-breathers, Fincher delivered a nuanced commentary on the herd mentality to the masses. Fight Club also features what may be the most aw-prompting of Fincher’s messages: a man is forever divided until he loves. On principle, I support any movie that ends with the bombing of financial institutions.
Long before GOOP, David Fincher presupposed that America yearned to see Gwyneth Paltrow’s decapitated head in a box. Before that, he constructed one of the most ruthlessly suspenseful thrillers ever put to screen, one that touched on religion, obsession, and the violent interpretations inherent in all ideologies. When Kevin Spacey tells Brad Pitt that he “envies his normal life,” that’s Fincher acknowledging the stories he, as a director, was meant to tell. He envies normal life, just as he has no interest in it.
Panic Room (2002)
His most underrated movie, Panic Room is Fincher doing Hitchcock, right down to the title sequence. Dense letters float weightlessly over New York, injecting an immediate unease. Boasting the last great Jodi Foster performance and the first great Kristen Stewart performance (yes, there’s more, there’s many, many more), Panic Room raises the stakes on its conceit in increments so perfectly measured they don’t register in the mind until they’re already in the blood. (Jared Leto in dreadlocks.)
A monolithic enterprise that demands repeat viewing, Zodiac is, regardless of its place on this list, Fincher’s greatest artistic achievement as a director. At turns a mystery, horror film, newspaper drama, and shaggy dog story, Zodiac weaves a string of false leads and red herrings that reveals at its endpoint a noose. Its ending is as elegant a “fuck you” to audiences as has ever been uttered.
The Social Network (2010)
For whatever reason, the first post I wrote on this blog was a review of The Social Network. It’s gibberish and I stand by it.
The Game (1997)
If Benjamin Button was ill-suited to David Fincher, The Game is a bespoke suit. The audience, like Michael Douglas’s character, is kept in a state of constant but deepening unknowing, while the world of the movie grows more friable by the second. Both stupid smart and blindly re-watchable, the film is somehow perfectly controlled and animatedly wild. To date, it’s Fincher at his most Fincher, which is to say playful.