Film Friday: The Films of David Fincher

By Daniel S Levine,

The career of David Fincher, the man behind Fight Club and The Social Network, is proof that a director can overcome a rocky start. The Denver native started his directing career working on music videos in the 1980s for artists from Madonna to Roy Orbison. In 1991, he was recruited by 20th Century Fox to make Alien3. From the start, that entire project was doomed and is still a clear example of what studio meddling leads to. While Fincher probably would have been able to make a film that could be as good as Alien, it was all made impossible by an impatient studio. Even before Fincher entered the picture just days before production was scheduled, Fox scrapped fully completed script ideas.

Fincher had done the best he could with the material he had, but the final product is hardly a total failure, particularly the longer version on home video. We'll never see Fincher's vision for Alien 3, but the long cut is one creepy movie that actually does give a good preview of how good Fincher could be without intervention.

Thankfully for moviegoers, Fincher wasn't completely soured by the Alien3 debacle. In 1995, he came back for Se7en, one of the best police dramas of the past decade. Like the best films of that genre, the crime at hand is made personal, as Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman move in to find the John Doe killing in order of the seven deadly sins. Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker and Fincher put together a stunning, bare-knuckle thriller that never lets go. That shocking ending - “What's in the BOX?” - is perfectly directed. Add in the performances by Pitt and Freeman and you have one amazing neo-noir. Se7en really re-introduced Fincher to audiences and set a high standard that he managed to meet in subsequent films.

In 1997, Fincher decided to take on The Game, written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris. This is one of the most complex films of his career, centering on Nicholas Van Orton, a withdrawn, socially inept wealthy banker played to perfection by Michael Douglas. His brother (Sean Penn), gives him a unique birthday present – access to a mind-bending game that forces him to question his reality and his own state of mind. Unfortunately, this is one of Fincher's least-known films, but it is a really well done Hitchcockian thriller. The reason why it probably remains unknown outside Fincher fans is that it isn't very friendly to a wide audience, since Van Orton isn't really a main character anyone would want to care about.

Fincher's best known film remains 1999's Fight Club, based on Chuck Palahniuk's novel of the same name. It reunited him with Pitt and co-starred Edward Norton. Pitt befriends Norton, despite their differences and the two start a club that transforms into a group planning on social destruction. In just 12 years the film, which failed to do well at the box office, has gone on to be one of the most influential films of the '90s. Fight Club shows off Fincher's ability to play with an audience's expectations.

His movie output slowed for the early half of the 2000s, only making the fine Jodie Foster thriller Panic Room in 2002. But in 2007, he began a stunning stretch of filmmaking, directing four movies from 2007 to 2011. He began with Zodiac, which is his finest hour. At a stunning 160 minutes long, Fincher and writer James Vanderbilt's engrossing account of San Francisco's “Zodiac” killer is everything a crime thriller should be. It's like two movies in one, with Mark Ruffalo's detective taking the case first and Jake Gyllenhaal taking over after they give up.

Zodiac was part of one of the greatest years in recent movie memory. There were bound to be films that the Academy would ignore and it was unfortunate that Zodiac was one of those. Robert Downey Jr. easily should have earned a supporting actor nod.

While Zodiac failed to get Academy attention, his 2008 film, the clunky, laborious The Curious Case of Benjamin Button did not. It was nominated for 13 Oscars, but only won three for its makeup, art direction and special effects. Now, how can I call Button clunky if it has the same exact running time as Zodiac? They are two very different films. Button has Oscar bait written all over it and the script was penned by Eric Roth, the same guy who adapted Forrest Gump for the screen. Fincher does keep Button from being as over sentimental as Gump, but it still doesn't feel like a natural progression for the filmmaker behind Fight Club and Zodiac.

Fincher rebounded with his two most recent films, though - The Social Network and his adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The Social Network isn't much of a thriller either, since you've got Aaron Sorkin writing words that actors have to deliver a mile a minute. Still, it's a revelation that Fincher can pull off a masterpiece in under two hours.

Social Network and Dragon Tattoo both share the amazing, Oscar-winning editing skills of Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, who help Fincher keep the stories flowing and fully realize his vision. Social Network shows Fincher's ability to tackle a unique subject and pull it off. Like Kubrick proving that you could make a movie on Lolita, Fincher and Sorkin proved that you can actually make a movie about a bunch of college kids fighting over something that even they can't know the full impact of. That's a bit of a stretch, since over 50 years later, we're still watching and reading Lolita. The real test for Social Network is whether or not it can still be a good movie if Facebook doesn't exist in 50 years.

Fincher has had one incredible career so far. He's overcome a major flop (Alien3), made his Oscar-bait (Button) and his cult classic (Fight Club). But it is his stunning thrillers that prove that he is among the most exciting directors working today. What makes him so good is his selection of top-notch material, since he is one of those rare auteurs who doesn't write his own screenplays. That makes it even more exciting to see what he takes on next.

You can talk about this director and others at the Film Friday Facebook page. You can check out past Film Friday columns here.

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