Mank, the latest from director David Fincher, is yet another feat by a filmmaker who has notched a few of them. He’s in that holy trinity of modern directors right alongside P.T. Anderson and Christopher Nolan — auteurs whose films are so defiantly theirs. Fincher would be the first to tell you that his career started off disastrously (read on for info on the Alien 3 production), so who could have anticipated all of the success that would follow both critically and financially?
Not only did our film staff agree on a ranking of Fincher’s 11 films, we went ahead and dissected each movie, as well. The director’s career is full of highlights, curiosities, and a small serving of disasters. However, all of his films remain interesting in their own ways. We hope you’ll dive into the 8,000+ words ahead and join the conversation in our comment section below as we break down the career of the great David Fincher.
Hell, I’m gonna go ahead and read it again myself.
11. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Runtime: 2 hr. 46 min.
Press Release: The trials and tribulations of a man who ages in reverse.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormand, Tilda Swinton
Inspired Casting: Pitt is surrounded by many familiar faces here, which plays a bit like cinematic de ja vu. For reference, he co-starred with Ormand in Legends of the Fall, with Swinton in Burn After Reading, with Jason Flemying in Snatch, with Jared Harris in Ocean’s Twelve, and with Blanchett in Babel. Plus, his daughter Shiloh makes a cameo as Benjamin and Daisy’s daughter Caroline, age 2. Thanks to this film, “Seven Degrees of Brad Pitt” just got a whole lot easier.
Fincher En Vogue: While Button is not one of Fincher’s better films by any stretch, Daisy’s car accident scene may be one of his most accomplished sequences. “Sometimes we’re on a collision course and we just don’t know it,” drawls Benjamin’s voiceover, “Whether it’s by accident or by design, there’s not a thing we can do about it.” Events unfold like a train chugging along, slowly picking up speed, and then running off the tracks: if the French woman hadn’t stopped to answer the phone before hailing a taxi, and if the taxi driver hadn’t stopped to order a coffee, then the fates would not have aligned as such that the taxi would come screeching at Daisy at the exact moment she was crossing the street, effectively ending her ballet career as a ballerina in one swift, sickening crash. Obviously the pacing, editing, and seductive imagery of these shots illustrates Daisy’s agony with more visceral feeling than words ever could, which is why the visual power of film remains so enticing, and also so uniquely devastating.
Score! French composer Alexandre Desplat, known for a diverse repertoire that includes Zero Dark Thirty, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Parts 1 and 2, and several Wes Anderson films, scored Button with an 87-piece ensemble of the Hollywood Studio Symphony.
Alternate History: Early development of the film began in 1994 and resurfaced in 1998 with Ron Howard tapped to direct.
Short Story vs. Film: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story upon which Fincher’s Button is based, differs from the film in almost every way imaginable. Only Benjamin’s name, the general aspects of his aging process, and the title match the original story; the rest is completely re-written. Fitzgerald’s tale follows Benjamin from his parents’ home to a try at college to his father’s hardware store, where he meets Hildegarde Moncrief, the love interest that is Daisy in the film. He goes on to serve in the Spanish American War, then enrolls at Harvard, and comes home to find that his wife Hildegarde has moved to Italy. Eventually, he fades away as a toddler in kindergarten, unable to remember anything of his earlier life.
The Forrest Gump Connection: Doesn’t sweet, earnest, idiosyncratic Benjamin seem a bit, well, Forrest Gump-y to you? That’s because Fincher specifically sought out Eric Roth, Forrest Gump’s Oscar-winning screenwriter, to pen the script for Button.
Oscar Fail: Button led the Academy Awards race in 2009 with 13 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor in a Leading Role (seriously), but only went home with three awards in the “blatantly rush the hardworking but non-famous people off the stage with exit music” categories: Best Makeup, Best Art Direction, and Best Visual Effects.
Analysis: Despite its impressive motion-capture aging effects and lush, often breathtaking cinematography, Button is, at its core, a disappointing dud. The dialogue shoots for poetic but usually rings hollow, the actors appear lost and confused most of the time, and the story, stretching for a painful two hours and 46 minutes, is bloated about an hour too long. And while Pitt shines in the Fincher vehicles Fight Club and Se7en, his Benjamin is a bland, soggy slice of milquetoast.
10. Alien 3 (1992)
Runtime: 1 hr. 54 min.
Press Release: Ripley lands on a prison planet with no weapons … but she is not alone.
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Lance Henriksen, Danny Webb
Hey, I Know That Guy! Renowned character actor Charles Dance plays Clemens, a bald, clean-shaven, disgraced doctor who supervises-then-sleeps with Ripley on the prison planet. In the early ’90s, Dance was best known to audiences as a go-to villain, having played the heavy against Eddie Murphy and later Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Golden Child and Last Action Hero, respectively. Now, of course, he is best known for his portrayal of Tywin Lannister on HBO’s Game of Thrones. No spoilers!
Fincher En Vogue: Ripley, in full-on Christ mode, sacrifices herself to save humanity, falling in slow-motion towards a fiery end. In the Assembly Cut of the film, this somber moment isn’t interrupted by an alien bursting out of Ridley’s chest mid-fall. Seriously, go with the Assembly Cut if you’ve never seen the film in any form, even though I just spoiled the hell out of the ending.
Score! Eliot Goldenthal had a tough act to follow. James Horner’s action score dominated Aliens, and before him it was Jerry Goldsmith’s nightmarish subtleties, which perfectly underscored Alien. In his first and only time working with Fincher, Goldenthal’s score mirrors that of Goldsmith’s. Fincher was attempting to return the franchise to its suspenseful roots sans heavy artillery (hell, there are no weapons in the prison, at all). As to whether or not the score is as memorable as either earlier entry, if you asked me to hum one bar of music from Alien 3 I would be unable to do so.
Alien 3 Will Be Set on Earth…NOT! Before the official story had been agreed upon, producers rushed this teaser to theaters. It’s an effective piece of marketing: the letters slowly forming to create the title of the film, the return of the cracking egg, news of Weaver’s return, and the promise that we will discover “on Earth, everyone can hear you scream.” What a trailer! Unfortunately, it was mostly bullshit, considering the fact that the movie does not take place on Earth at all. Ripley’s clone eventually returned home in Alien: Resurrection, but real-deal Ripley never did.
Production from Hell: During the making of Alien 3, the story was constantly being re-written, and poor Fincher had to begin shooting his first movie without a finished shooting script. Despite his best efforts, the first-time director had his work taken away from him by producers, and Fincher has since disowned the film. He told the BBC in 1993: “The lesson to be learned is that you really can’t take on an enterprise of this size and scope if you don’t really have a movie like The Terminator or Jaws behind you. When Steven Spielberg comes in and says, ‘I made Jaws, the biggest grossing film of all time and I want $18 million to do Close Encounters,’ which is probably the equivalent to what we spent, it’s very nice to be able to say, ‘This is the guy who directed the biggest grossing film of all time. Sit down and shut up, and feel lucky that you’ve got him.”
Aforementioned Assembly Cut: While not officially Fincher’s cut of Alien 3, it gets pretty close. This version plays about a half hour longer, and that’s not even including alternate takes. For instance, in this version, the alien emerges from a cow instead of a dog. There is a whole subplot removed from the movie that surrounds Golic, played by the great Paul McGann (The Eighth Doctor in Doctor Who). His character believes the alien is a devil, and his fear and awe of the creature leads him to help it escape after the prisoners successfully captured it (in the movie, the alien escapes on its own). The assembly cut is definitely the better version.
Fincher on Alien 3: To The Guardian in 2009: “I had to work on it for two years, got fired off it three times and I had to fight for every single thing. No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.”
Analysis: Fincher’s probably right. Alien 3 is done in by a rushed production schedule, tampering, and an ill-fated decision to kill off fan favorites Hicks and Newt in the opening credits. However, there are a few sequences of genuine terror and suspense, and the fact that you find yourself rooting for a bunch of inmates who have committed the worst crimes imaginable is a success in itself. And, hey, it’s better than any Alien movie that followed.
09. Panic Room (2002)
Runtime: 1 hr. 52 min.
Press Release: A mother and daughter lock themselves inside a high-tech panic room during a robbery, only to discover the intruders want something that’s inside.
Cast: Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, Dwight Yoakam
Inspired Casting: Screenwriter David Koepp initially conceived the character of Burnham as “an unpleasant white collar compulsive gambler,” someone like “Humphrey Bogart in one of his less pleasant roles.” However, casting Forest Whitaker as a blue-collar family man significantly altered the characterization, resulting in a more nuanced, grounded performance when compared to Junior (Leto) the vile rich kid and Raoul (Yoakim) the psychotic drifter. And although I have never been nor ever will be a fan of Kristen Stewart, kudos to the casting directors for picking a kid who actually looks like she could be Jodie Foster’s daughter.
Fincher En Vogue: According to Fincher, the Panic Room shoot was a “logistical nightmare,” but many of these painstaking efforts do pay off, namely one sequence near the beginning of the film that took nine days to complete on set and another several months to tweak in post-production. The seamless shot, beginning with Meg (Foster) lying in bed and then down the stairs and through the walls to reveal the trio of robbers breaking in to her brownstone, is nearly three minutes long and serves as the first teaser for many more innovative shots to come.
Score! After finishing up work on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Howard Shore returned to Fincher’s camp to compose the score to Panic Room, saying that he wanted to take on a smaller project in the wake of such an epic undertaking. Shore would go on to score the next two Lord of the Rings films and the Hobbit films as well, but Panic Room, alongside Se7en and The Game, still contains some of his darkest, nerviest compositions to date.
Alternate History: Nicole Kidman was originally cast as Meg, embodying the glacial Grace Kelly type that Fincher had in mind to play the lead, and Hayden Panettiere was cast as her daughter. However, Panettiere was replaced with Stewart before filming began (Fincher found her “irritating”), and Kidman dropped out 18 days in due to a recurring knee injury she had suffered on the set of Moulin Rouge. The role of Meg was then offered to Foster, which in turn changed the character and tone of the film from cool and Hitchcockian to gritty and political.
Not My Daughter, You [Beep]: Foster is known for playing badass female characters, but from approximately 1991 to present, she has capitalized on a particular archetypal subset: a mother fiercely protecting her child. For evidence, see Little Man Tate (defending her son’s genius), Flight Plan (saving her daughter from evil Peter Sarsgaard), Carnage (waging war with the parents of a boy who hit her son with a stick), and, of course, Panic Room, in which anyone who dares to endanger her weak diabetic daughter gets a propane gas explosion in the face.
The Call Is Coming from Inside the House: Panic Room also follows a long line of home invasion thrillers with comparable plotlines: Straw Dogs, Rear Window, Lady in a Cage. But perhaps the film with the most similarities to Panic Room is 1967’s Wait Until Dark, starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman who outsmarts three criminals with personalities akin to Burnham, Junior and Raoul — one compassionate, one slick, one ruthless — breaking into her brownstone apartment.
Bills, Bills, Bills: The cost of production for Panic Room blew up to a much higher sum than anticipated — $6 million for a four-story apartment that took 15 weeks to build, over $10 million in delays from replacing Kidman and working around Foster’s pregnancy — bringing the final budget to $48 million. Upside: Sony Pictures gave David Koepp a record $4 million for his screenplay, and the film went on to gross a respectable $194.4 million worldwide.
GTFO, Patriarchy: While Foster brings the requisite amount of grit and gumption to every film she inhabits, the character of Meg could be easily described as either feminist or anti-feminist, depending on how you look at her. Although not maritally or economically tied to a man, nor dependent on a man to protect her, Meg still conveys the image of “feminized vulnerability,” as academic Jyotsna Kapur describes, replaying the trope of “diminutive white women in need of protection from outside threats.” While Meg is no Ripley on the page, Foster does try her best to imbue the role with her signature toughness, and occasionally succeeds at making Meg more than just a poorly drawn caricature.
Analysis: Occasionally harrowing, but mostly silly and overwrought, Panic Room is not the best example of Fincher’s capabilities as a director. Blame it on unfortunate production difficulties and circumstances outside his control, if you must, but his tauter (read: better) films prove that he is capable of so much more.
08. The Game (1997)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 8 min.
Press Release: What do you get for the man who has everything? A confusing game with the intention of destroying his life.
Cast: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, James Rebhorn, Deborah Kara Unger, Peter Donat
Inspired Casting: Sean Penn as Douglas’ troubled brother is pretty great. He was still on fire from his Oscar-nominated performance in 1995’s Dead Man Walking and was coming off a short string of curious roles, such as his work in Nick Cassavates’ She’s So Lovely and Oliver Stone’s U Turn, the latter hitting screens only weeks before The Game would. Needless to say, plenty of eyes were on Spicoli.
Fincher En Vogue: Throughout the film, Douglas experiences these rapid, hypnotic flashbacks to his father’s suicide, which are all shot on 8mm film. While the shift in tone is certainly to convey the idea of experiencing vivid memories, these shots when juxtaposed against Harris Savides’ crisp cinematography make for quite a jarring experience. Outside the lens, however, there’s a great attention to scenery, specifically old money. According to James Swallow’s Dark Eye: The Films of David Fincher, this was intentional as Fincher set many scenes in locations fortified with hardwood paneling and red leather. The effect is quite tangible.
Score! Fincher keeps a tight family and tagged Seven composer Howard Shore once again for The Game. There’s a lot of atmosphere and menace to his work here, but what stands out is the way he pierces his multi-layered score with minimal piano keys, recalling the likes of György Ligeti. It also goes with Fincher’s interest in taking on old money, and there’s a sense of class with each piano note that’s always undercut by strings and bass. It’s both pleasant and terrifying all at once. On screen, however, it adds to Douglas’ own insanity as the game takes more and more of his identity.
Alternate History: Somewhere in another galaxy, The Game lives on director Jonathan Mostow’s resume and stars Kyle MacLachlan and Bridget Fonda and is probably in a bargain bin of DVDs with the only special feature being “Theatrical Trailer.” Actually, MacLachlan probably would have nailed the part of Nicholas Van Orton, though it would have been something as a David Lynch production. Also in another galaxy is Fincher’s alternate vision of Jodie Foster as Christine and Jeff Bridges in lieu of Penn as Douglas’ brother Conrad. At the time, Fincher deemed Foster too big for the role (smart), and Bridges declined (not so smart). Oh well.
Classic Rebhorn: The late character actor left us early this year with a resume totaling over 100 films, television series, and plays. Amongst all of his supporting characters, however, The Game represents one of his best. As agent Jim Feingold, Rebhorn is sophisticated yet down to earth, a “suit” that you can get behind. When Douglas confronts his character at the zoo with his children in the film’s final act, Rebhorn plays the “suit dad” even better. He also gets the honor of providing all the necessary exposition of the film and one of its best closing lines: “You know, thank God you jumped, because if you didn’t, I was supposed to throw you off!” He’ll be missed.
The Game‘s Spine No. for The Criterion Collection: 627
Whatever happened to that actress who played Christine? Oh, you mean Deborah Kara Unger? She had a good run for awhile, starring in Payback alongside Mel Gibson, The Hurricane with Denzel Washington, and that icky Thirteen flick. Lately, she’s had a recurring role in the Silent Hill series, and later this year she’ll star in Brad Pitt’s WWII vehicle, Fury.
I was a teenager obsessed with sex when The Game came out, but didn’t Christine’s line about not wearing underwear seem odd? Just a little.
But a little hot, right? Okay, sure.
Analysis: It’s far-fetched and slightly longer than necessary, but The Game is a compelling thriller that twists and turns in ways that weren’t exactly predictable at the time. Michael Douglas delivers an exceptional performance, which he’d follow up with A Perfect Murder, Wonder Boys, and Traffic (not too shabby), while Penn sparkles in the film’s underbelly. The conclusion is also worth experiencing for a first time and will bring out the Joey Lawrence in you.
07. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 38 min.
Press Release: A journalist and a hacker team up to solve the mystery of a girl who went missing decades earlier.
Cast: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Robin Wright
Inspired Casting: Rooney Mara beat out several well-known actresses for the pivotal role of Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker with a dark past. After a poor experience making the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, Mara nearly quit acting altogether. Fortunately for us she did not, and her star-making turn as Lisbeth has led to several more interesting roles in what’s sure to be a long career (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Side Effects, Her).
Fincher En Vogue: For a movie that cribs quite often from the Swedish original, one cannot dispute its wholly original opening credits sequence. A black, sticky substance keeps forming human shapes in a violent, sexual fashion, as bodies break and flowers bloom. Combined with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” performed by Karen O. (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (both becoming the Bernard Herrmann to Fincher’s Hitchcock), these credits represent the chaos to come.
Score! Re-teaming once more to work with Fincher, the duo of Reznor/Ross created a score for Dragon that is glitchy and beat-driven, much more in tune to Reznor’s work with Nine Inch Nails. This makes sense, seeing as how much of the music underscores Lisbeth’s scenes, a character that based off wardrobe alone has probably paid for a few NIN shows and albums, or at the very least stole credit card information to obtain tickets and records. In addition to the aforementioned “Immigrant Song”, Reznor provides a cover of Bryan Ferry’s “Is Your Love Strong Enough” for the film’s closing credits. No David Gilmour on guitar, sadly.
Re-Make/Re-Model: In 2009, Danish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev adapted The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for Swedish audiences, starring established actor Michael Nyqvist as Mikael and Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth. The film’s worldwide success ($100 million gross) led both Nyqvist and Rapace to greater success stateside. Nyqvist played villain to Tom Cruise’s hero in 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol while Rapace took lead in Ridley Scott’s 2012 Alien prequel, Prometheus. One of these movies was really good.
The Girl Sequels? The Swedish original gave birth to two sequels that were also based on novels by the late Steig Larsson: 2009’s The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Plans had been made to continue the trend stateside after Fincher’s Dragon, but though the film didn’t bomb, any talks of a sequel had long since fallen by the wayside … until recently. Here’s what Fincher himself has to say (roughly translated from Swedish): “I think because [Sony] already has spent millions of dollars on the rights and the script so it will result in something. The script that we now have a huge potential, I can reveal as much as it is extremely different from the book.”
Analysis: Aside from some movie he made about an alien, this is a tough film to dissect when it comes to Fincher’s capabilities as a filmmaker. Not only is he tackling a remake, he’s remaking a film that was released only two years earlier and was an international success. If you can remove the Swedish film from the equation (or better yet, if you didn’t see the Swedish version), Fincher’s Dragon is much more entertaining. If you can’t, you’re left with a movie that is at times a near shot-for-shot remake (ex. the brutal rape sequence). Regardless, thanks to another mesmorizing score and Mara’s breakthrough performance, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remains a good if somewhat perfunctory film.
06. Gone Girl (2014)
Runtime: 149 min.
Press Release: On the day of their 5th anniversary, writing teacher Nick Dunne’s wife Amy goes missing.
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Ben Affleck, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris, Kim Dickens
Inspired Casting/Hey I Know That Guy!: As Tanner Bolt, Nick Dunne’s charming, high-profile lawyer, Tyler Perry nearly steals the movie. The casting may seem like a head-scratcher if you only know him from his Madea films, but Perry is brilliant here—full of confidence, authority, presence and wit. It’s not hard to understand why Fincher chose the powerhouse producer/actor to play the hotshot lawyer dubbed “the patron saint of wife killers” who has a $100k retainer. Perry is A+ perfect, and critics uniformly agreed.
Fincher En Vogue: Amy (Pike) slits former boyfriend turned captor Desi’s (Harris) throat as they have sex, maneuvering so she’s on top in her angelic white lingerie getting absolutely soaked in his blood. Punctuated by foreboding, electronic whirring sounds in the score and shot in short flashes of action, the scene feels both disturbingly macabre and weirdly sexy, harkening back to Fincher’s Madonna music video days and the graphic violence of Se7en. It’s a slick (literally), sick moment that cements both Amy’s AND Fincher’s killer instincts.
Score! For their third collaboration with Fincher, composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross layer their usual moody, ambient synth with pops of cheery electronic sounds. The effect is both soothing and anxiety-inducing, leaving you incapable of relaxing for a second (which was the point given Fincher’s inspiration came from a visit to the chiropractor). This creepy, undeniably beautiful, meditation-style music only serves to emphasize the sheer horror of Nick and Amy’s seemingly “perfect” marriage.
A Novel Idea: The film is based on Gillian Flynn’s 2012 bestselling novel. Flynn, a former writer for Entertainment Weekly, had previously authored two other popular, dark mystery novels, Dark Places and Sharp Objects, which were both eventually adapted for film and TV respectively with huge names (Charlize Theron and Amy Adams). In an unusual move, Flynn also penned the screenplay—her first—for Gone Girl, working closely with Fincher rather than passing it off to a more seasoned screenwriter.
Fincher Meets Tracy Flick? Reese Witherspoon was originally attached to play Amy, having initially acquired the rights to Flynn’s book in 2012 via her production company Pacific Standard. But when Fincher was hired, he sat down with the Academy Award-winning actress and had, in her words, a “long conversation where he was like, ‘You’re not right for it, and this is why,’ and I actually completely agreed with him.” The role ultimately went to Pike, who earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination, while Witherspoon is credited as a producer on the film.
Fake News: In addition to being a twisty thriller, Gone Girl also provides a sharp look at how the media shapes narratives surrounding people and events and the public consumes that information especially in the age of frenzied news cycles. The public’s perception of Nick (Affleck) changes dramatically based primarily on the “reporting” of Ellen Abbott (character actress MVP Missi Pyle), a Nancy Grace-style pundit by way of Fox News who cares more about ratings than truth. These hysterical (in all senses of the word) news clips provide needed levity while casting doubt on the truthfulness of the main players and the news outlets themselves.
Affleck vs. Fincher: Production was shut down for four days when Affleck, famous Bostonian and Red Sox fan, refused to wear a NY Yankees cap in a scene where Nick is attempting to conceal his identity at the airport. The media-savvy actor told the New York Times in 2014 he refused because of his well-known reputation and that it would “become a thing, and I will never hear the end of it.” Affleck ultimately agreed to wear a NY Mets hat instead.
Analysis: Gone Girl is many things: a bleak satirization of “perfect” marriage, a condemnation of frenzied media reporting, a stylish thriller, a brutal look at gender politics. While some might claim the film is both misogynistic and misandrist at times, Fincher and Flynn’s evenhandedness reveal the flaws in not just Amy and Nick and men and women, but the institution of marriage itself. Gone Girl entertains as it horrifies you—it’s Fatal Attraction by way of Fincher, making you think twice about the person to whom you say, “I do.”
05. Mank (2020)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 11 min.
Press Release: That guy who wrote Citizen Kane? What a cutup! Also, Hollywood is a capitalist nightmare!
Cast: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Charles Dance, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Tuppence Middleton
Inspired Casting: It’s all about Mank, baby; despite the murderer’s row of killer character actors on display in Mank (Dance, in particular, casts an imposing spell as William Randolph Hearst), it’s Gary Oldman’s show through and through. Witty, mercurial, and deeply flawed, Oldman’s take on acclaimed screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz is a showcase of tremendous verbal fencing and Chaplinesque physicality. He swaggers and slurs his way from one fast-talking scene to the next, a man bleary-eyed by drink but focused by his leftist politics (and the friction that engenders in the Hollywood elite he writes for). Sure, Oldman’s a couple decades older than Mank’s supposed to be for much of the film. But hey, lifelong alcoholism ages you. What else can you say?
Fincher En Vogue: For such an exceedingly modernist filmmaker as Fincher, it’s intriguing to watch him direct his eye for detail to the period-appropriate aesthetic and cinematic modes of Citizen Kane. Manipulating HDR footage to simulate old-school black and white film (cigarette burns and all), building the film’s sound around a monoraul soundtrack, all of it feels deliberately engineered to both throw us in and remark upon the deep-focus mastery of Welles’ film. Add to that cheeky visual flourishes like scene cards reading like script headings (EXT. — MGM STUDIOS — DAYT — 1934 (FLASHBACK)), and Mank becomes a movie that honors and toys with the mechanics of Old Hollywood filmmaking.
Score! We all know Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for their blippy, glitchy, minimalist scores, especially in their collabs with Fincher. But this time, they throw themselves into the period muck right along with him, creating a silky, jazzy score that matches the fast-paced rat race of Hollywood in the ’30s. There’s still room to experiment though — listen carefully for a typewriter being used as percussion in one or two vital tracks, a reminder of Mank’s constant flow of inimitable verbiage.
Alternate History: The script for Mank has been drifting around since the ’90s (written by Fincher’s father Jack, a journalist). Originally, Fincher wanted to make it after The Game, with Kevin Spacey as Mank and Jodie Foster co-starring. Considering how well that casting would have aged, let’s be thankful we got what we got.
All’s Welles That Ends Welles: Don’t get it twisted, though, Mank is less a making-of for Citizen Kane than it is a making-of for the man who’d write it, and why he might glom to a Hollywood outsider like Orson Welles in the first place. Welles, strangely, is the most off element in the cast (Tom Burke’s impression isn’t that great, and he appears only intermittently), and the framing device of Mank writing the screenplay while convalescing feels more structural than thematically important.
Where the Ladies At?: Granted, Amanda Seyfried’s take on actress/Hearst mistress/Mank confidant Marion Davies is absolutely radiant — she’s the real heart of the film, a woman who finds kinship in someone else who has to wrestle with her principles to play the Hollywood game. But the other women of Mank get admittedly short shrift. Take Lily Collins’ Rita Alexander, Mank’s secretary in the flashbacks who mostly exists for the older, recovering Mank to confide in. Or Tuppence Middleton, underwritten and laughably cast far too young as Mank’s wife Sara; she and Oldman don’t have much chemistry, and it’d be kinda creepy if they did.
Analysis: To an extent, only film grognards need apply for Mank — it’s a film deeply mired in the politics, names, and minutiae of studio-era Hollywood, and doesn’t pause to let people who have maybe only heard of Citizen Kane in on its many games of inside baseball. But it’s also a film that relishes in its craft and pokes a welcome finger in the eye of the very people whose style and ambition it depicts. It’s as playfully witty as its title character and as sanguine about the rotten core of American capitalism. Mank is a tragedy that plays like a farce, and that might be its greatest gift.
04. Fight Club (1999)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 19 min.
Press Release: First rule of Fight Club, you don’t talk about Fight Club. That’s easy to sell, right?
Cast: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter
Inspired Casting: Meat Loaf as Robert “Bob” Paulson. Seriously, who saw that coming? The celebrated ’70s rocker as a testicular cancer victim with “bitch tits”? It’s still a confounding bit of casting. As such, it’s his best and most iconic role on the silver screen since — whoa, nelly, I’m going there — Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Sorry, Black Dog fans.) It’s likely his most physically-demanding role, too. Throughout filming, the singer wore a fat harness that weighed 90 pounds in addition to eight-inch lifts to make him taller than Norton. He also had to cry. A lot.
Fincher En Vogue: Christ, where to begin? The cult hit basically inspired a new generation and brand of filmmakers. How about Kevin Tod Haug’s 90-second opening inside the narrator’s brain? Or the way Norton’s apartment transforms into an IKEA catalog? Maybe the mechanics of the gas-powered bomb? That acid kiss is pretty wicked, too. Or how about that sex scene with Marla? The could go on forever because, really, the whole film is Fincher En Vogue, so much so that some might argue it’s more flash than substance. They’d be wrong, of course, but they’d have one hell of an argument.
Score! Show of hands, people: How many of you listened to The Dust Brothers’ score every day in the early aughts? Thought so. With its scattered drum loops and eccentric samples, the music of Fight Club is just as distorted as the film’s subversion of reality. One half of the duo, Michael Simpson, explained his work, saying: “Fincher wanted to break new ground with everything about the movie, and a nontraditional score helped achieve that.” From the punk rock opening, to the carnival strolls, to the wub wub bass line that floats throughout, the Dust Brothers were heavily responsible in making this film a cult hit. The use of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” probably did wonders for Frank Black’s checking account, too.
“I am Fincher’s original choice for a composer.” Radiohead, if you could imagine that. Apparently Trent Reznor was interested, as well.
Alternate History: Producer Ross Bell originally met with Russell Crowe for Tyler. The studio wanted Matt Damon for The Narrator. Even Sean Penn at one point. The role of Marla was even more polarizing. Fincher’s No. 1 choice was Janeane Garofalo, who passed based on the film’s sexual content, while Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, and Reese Witherspoon were also all considered. Let’s thank Art Linson for going after Brad Pitt, and while Fincher’s drive for Garofalo makes sense on paper, she’s a little too spry for the role. Carter delivers a brand of ascerbic wit few can pull off, while her bitter naivety winds up selling the audience on the film’s twist.
Remember when this appeared with Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace?
The book or the movie? Fight Club is the rare film that actually trumps the book. In a way, Chuck Palahniuk’s novel works like a treatment for the eventual groundbreaking screenplay by Jim Uhls. Core ideas are fleshed out more on-screen and most of the themes are given a better chance to breathe and find life. The ending is also far superior with the book sort of ending in an anti-climactic style that’s neither fitting nor thought provoking. But, don’t hate; even the author agrees. This is what he told DVD Talk:
“Now that I see the movie, especially when I sat down with Jim Uhls and record a commentary track for the DVD, I was sort of embarrassed of the book, because the movie had streamlined the plot and made it so much more effective and made connections that I had never thought to make. There is a line about “fathers setting up franchises with other families,” and I never thought about connecting that with the fact that Fight Club was being franchised and the movie made that connection. I was just beating myself in the head for not having made that connection myself.”
Still, the book’s worth a read.
“The Greatest Film of our Lifetime” That’s what Total Film said in 2007.
Analysis: Ignore the dorm room posters and uninspired knock offs, Fight Club remains the greatest film of its time. It arrived at a moment in film history when the Hollywood model was making so much money that they didn’t care about shaking things up. Fincher took a nihilistic piece of gritty writing and offered up a product that was offensive and yet tantalizing, disgusting yet unmistakably sexy. It’s the Taxi Driver of the aughts with a twist that makes for an eerie repeat viewing. What’s also fascinating is how Fight Club rattles American values with its imagery and criticism, despite pre-dating 9/11 by about two years. That thematic foresight certainly adds weight to the film and one of the reasons we’re still obsessed with it today.
03. Se7en (1995)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 7 min.
Press Release: Two detectives must track down a killer using the “seven deadly sins” as his template.
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow, John C. McGinley
Inspired Casting: Kevin Spacey’s reveal as vice-fixated murderer John Doe was more than just a surprise twist in the film; it was a complete shock for anyone outside of Fincher’s inner circle, as no one but the cast, crew, and producers of Se7en knew that Spacey was involved in the production at all, let alone playing the central antagonist. Cast just two days before filming began, Spacey was absent from all of the press events preceding the film and agreed to keep his name off the poster and out of the opening credits (with the compensation of his name appearing twice in the closing credits) so that audiences would remain in the dark about his identity as the killer. The ruse worked to great effect — a miraculous feat by today’s instant TMZ secret-busting standards — but it was Spacey’s bravura, bone-chilling performance as Doe that sealed the deal.
Fincher En Vogue: The scene in which Detectives Somerset (Freeman) and Mills (Pitt) discover John Doe’s lair is a prime example of early Fincher coming into his own as an artist and as a master of suspense: meticulous design, dynamic lighting, and clever blocking of the actors to bring the eeriness of the space to a near excruciating head. Cinematographer Darius Khondji also deserves credit for how gorgeously the multi-room set is lit, shot, and maneuvered, with Somerset and Mills moving through darkness in subtly choreographed tandem, uncovering puzzle pieces of horror by flashlight.
Score! Se7en begins with a spliced remix of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” to augment the creepy opening sequence and ends with David Bowie’s “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” as the credits roll. In broodier moments that reflect Somerset’s inner sanctum, jazz and soul standards such as Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man”, Billie Holliday’s “I Cover the Waterfront”, and Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser” are peppered throughout. The film’s heart-pounding original score is composed by frequent Fincher collaborator Howard Shore.
Alternate History: Originally screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker envisioned William Hurt in the role of Somerset, as Hurt fit the physical profile of Walker’s favorite author, W. Somerset Maugham, after whom the character was named. Al Pacino was also considered for the role in pre-production, but turned it down to do City Hall. As for that iconic finale, New Line Cinema rejected it outright in the first draft, but accidentally sent Fincher the original head-in-the-box screenplay to coax him into directing. When New Line realized their mistake, they pressured Fincher for a revision, but Fincher and Pitt stood firm, both refusing to do Se7en unless the scene remained.
‘90s Noir: In Roger Ebert’s review of Se7en, he notes that “Although the time of the story is the present , the set design suggests the 1940s; Gary Wissner, the art director, goes for dark blacks and browns, lights of deep yellow, and a lot of dark wood.” Indeed, the film is as dark in atmospherics as it is in style and tone, evoking semblances to premier horror films (Fincher has said that he approached making Se7en like “a tiny genre movie, the kind of movie Friedkin might have made after The Exorcist”) and gritty, classic Old Hollywood noirs such as The Third Man, Double Indemnity, and Out of the Past.
Best Opening Titles: Se7en’s jarring and genuinely terrifying opening credits sequence is often singled out as a pinnacle of the form, and rightly so. Through jittery, fuzzed-up cuts of sociopathic memorabili — razor blades, bloody photographs, journals sewn together with violent imagery, and madman screed— Fincher and title designer Kyle Cooper created, in what was shot over two days and then edited for a grueling five weeks, what the New York Times called, “one of the most important design innovations of the 1990s.”
What’s in the Box? For Fincher die-hards, the Limited Edition Blu-ray DVD box set of Se7en is a must-own collection. In addition to the stunningly remastered film and four-in depth commentary tracks on Disc 1 (featuring Fincher, Walker, Freeman, and Pitt), Disc 2 contains additional and extended scenes, three different versions of the opening title sequence, and two alternate endings: a studio-favored “test” ending and an un-shot version with storyboards, both available with optional commentary.
Analysis: As the smash-hit sophomore film of a hitherto unknown director, Se7en did more than introduce Fincher to a mainstream audience. This edgy, disturbing, and rightfully acclaimed thriller solidified Fincher’s place as a formidable new talent and visionary, on par with a young Scorsese, De Palma, or Demme, and served as the launching pad for his next decade and a half of genre-defining and transcending works.
02. The Social Network (2010)
Runtime: 2 hrs.
Press Release: The rise and rise of Facebook, as told through the eyes of those who were there.
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella
Inspired Casting: Fincher’s casting of then-unknown Armie Hammer was a fine example of the director’s ability to cast new and exciting talent, but to cast Hammer’s twin brother … oh, wait. He doesn’t have a twin brother. Thanks to stand-ins and post-production effects, Hammer was able to portray both of the Winkelvoss twins in such a convincing fashion that there are people to this day who are convinced Hammer and another came from the same zygote. Wait, who’s Armie Hammer again?
Fincher En Vogue: For a director known for his stylish, often in-your-face style of filmmaking, The Social Network is mostly flashy-free. Its best moments don’t arrive via groundbreaking editing or quick cuts, but on shots that linger. The ending of the film serves as the best example, where a seemingly numb Mark Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) sits in a conference room chair and refreshes his web browser over and over again, hoping that an ex-girlfriend will accept his friend request. It’s the perfect way to end a film about a man who no longer seems to care what people think, but ultimately craves their approval.
Score! The decision to hire Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to provide the music for The Social Network seemed odd at the time, but that’s what makes it work so well. The darkness of Reznor’s work within Nine Inch Nails could have translated well to earlier Fincher films such as Se7en (where “Closer” is featured) or The Game, but to hire Reznor and Ross for a movie about a dweeb who starts a website is absolutely inspired. The Academy agreed; The Social Network won for Best Score at the 2011 Academy Awards. As for proper songs, not many are featured, so when The Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man” appears during the final scene, the film sticks its landing.
Zuckerberg Meets Zuckerberg: During first-time host Eisenberg’s monologue on Saturday Night Live, a very famous, non-performer appeared onstage to rapturous applause. This non-performer was/is the CEO and co-founder of Facebook, whose name is Mark Zuckerberg. Yes, the man who was practically skewered in The Social Network stood side-by-side with the man who portrayed him in a less-than flattening light. The awkwardness faded away by the monologue’s conclusion, as the two men gave each other pats on the back. Kudos to everyone involved for making and letting that happen.
From Studio to Network: Aaron Sorkin badly needed a win. NBC had banked on Sorkin’s show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip to be as big a hit as The West Wing was, and we’ll just say they went bankrupt. The show flopped, and Sorkin was no longer the hot commodity he once had been. Fortunately for him, his adaptation of The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal won him an Oscar, and he would piggyback off the film’s success to re-write the magnificent Moneyball and create HBO’s most-important-show-in-the-history-of-important-shows: The Newsroom. One out of two ain’t bad.
A Lawsuit Over a Movie About a Lawsuit: Remember the film’s portrayal of Zuckerberg’s former classmate Aaron Greenspan? No? That’s because he didn’t appear. You would think that not being included in a movie that makes both plaintiffs and defendants look equally entitled would be a good thing, but Greenspan attempted to sue the filmmakers for doing just that. His “defamation by omission” lawsuit was immediately dismissed.
Most Disturbing Moment on Film in the 21st Century: The moment we discover (for the previously uninformed) that Zuckerberg has betrayed co-founder Eduardo Sanchez (Garfield). The reveal arrives in the safety of a conference room filled with lawyers and millionaires, sans a tray of torture devices, but the painful realization of what happened between the two former best friends is painful enough. My skin crawls just writing about it.
Analysis: This was the best movie of 2010, no matter what other award committees may have believed at the time (The King’s Speech is good but not this good). Fincher gets the absolute best out of his performers, lets the shots breathe, and takes our breath away in the process. With Sorkin’s dialogue and the Reznor/Ross duo on score, Fincher’s The Social Network may have been the director’s greatest achievement, were it not for that movie he made about a 1970s serial killer…
01. Zodiac (2007)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 37 min.
Press Release: The infamous manhunt for the elusive Zodiac killer makes its way to the silver screen.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr., Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox
Inspired Casting: Everyone? Laray Mayfield, who’s worked alongside Fincher since 1999’s Fight Club, worked her magic for Zodiac, assembling a rogue’s gallery of underrated talent who deliver 110% on each role. Principal stars Gyllenhaal, Ruffalo, and Downey, Jr. carry a very heavy film, but it’s the supporting talent that helps them along the way — and they never stop coming. Edwards, Cox, John Getz, Elias Koteas, Chloë Sevigny, Donal Logue, Philip Baker Hall, Dermot Mulroney … hell, even Ione Skye makes an appearance. What’s more, each appearance never comes off as showy; instead, they all absorb each character and live within Fincher’s smoke-tinted world.
Fincher En Vogue: As Roy Ivy recently pointed out, Zodiac was “Fincher’s first full-length dance with the Thompson Viper Filmstream camera,” which allowed him to watch the dailies in full resolution, an addition that, as Fincher explained, led to “a much less neurotic process.” By using the camera in its native Filmstream mode, the uncompressed video stream allows for exceptional quality, which is one reason why Zodiac looks so damn great. It also helps that Fincher and Savides slaved over countless source materials — including actual police files — to recreate the time period to precision. “I suppose there could have been more VW bugs,” Fincher noted in a press release, “but I think what we show is a pretty good representation of the time. It is not technically perfect. There are some flaws but some are intended.” All of these details, coupled with Digital Domain’s realistic visual effects, make for an ambitious production, even by Fincher’s design.
Fincher En Vogue, Part II: There are a number of spine-shattering moments in Zodiac, but none of them measure up to the attack on Bryan Hartnell and Cecelia Shepard at Lake Berryessa. The way Fincher sequences each shot creates this palpable tension that’s almost too much to bear, and by the time the stabbings actually do occur, most viewers are already looking away. It’s not that we’re terrified for the couple, but for ourselves. Fincher’s use of close shots, specifically when the two are tied up, puts you right there with them. And rather than cut away, he zeroes in on each victim screaming, an unforgiving decision that makes for an unforgiving scene.
Score! Nobody walks away from this film without at least humming Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”. But then there’s also Three Dog Night, The Animals, Sly and the Family Stone, Miles Davis, and a handful of other greats from the ’60s and ’70s. What most people don’t know is that Fincher commissioned The Conversation and All the President’s Men composer David Shire to flesh out the film’s moments with a score. Originally, he was only supposed to do 10 minutes, which would be paired with various cues from the two aforementioned films, but that eventually evolved to 27 minutes, which Shire composed alongside the San Francisco Orchestra. How fitting, right? It gets even better: “There are 12 signs of the Zodiac and there is a way of using atonal and tonal music,” Shire wrote in the film’s production notes. “So we used 12 tones, never repeating any of them but manipulating them.” Pretty cool.
Director’s Cut: At one point, Zodiac ran three hours and eight minutes. But don’t fret, the director’s cut only adds two scenes and runs five minutes past the theatrical version. However, this is the cut that was sent to the Producers Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America, and the Screen Actors Guild — in other words, seek out this version instead.
The real crime? It didn’t receive one Academy Award nomination, nor did it win any award.
“There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer.” What a tagline! But also exactly what separates Zodiac from any sort of generic thriller. The Zodiac murders are only a medium for the core story of obsession and the dangers that follow. About halfway through the film, the actual killings come to an end, and instead, we slowly watch lives being sucked away. Everyone who’s tied to the case, from the writers to the detectives to the survivors, whither away slowly in obsession, and that’s what Fincher captures best. Captions, songs, montages, and, most of all, character arcs inch time forward and somehow it’s never droll. That’s what makes the film magnificent.
Analysis: Fincher’s best work is also his most underrated. Zodiac is a sprawling, excessive, and meandering masterpiece — and that’s exactly the point. Drawing inspiration from Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, Fincher sourced all of his talents and came out on top, delivering a film worthy of standing next to its initial mentor. To think, he optioned this over The Black Dahlia, which would go on to be butchered by the once-great Brian De Palma. Thank god. Although much applause is due to screenwriter James Vanderbilt, whose 158-page screenplay provided one hell of a blueprint, Fincher took audiences back several decades without a time machine and told an exceptional story that’s still without an ending. Try beating those odds.