Monday, November 24, 2014

The Work of David Fincher

*** Guest write-up by Reel True's Greg Rouleau

Moviegoers have flocked to the theaters over the past month and a half to revel in the thrill of the newly released feature from director David Fincher - Gone Girl.   The Gillian Flynn novel adaptation marks the 10th major feature-length film for the auteur and his highest grossing one yet.  With that, it seemed appropriate to look back and examine his impressive résumé.  Getting a disclaimer out of the way: I have yet to see Alien 3, but all indications point to it being the consensus #10 on his list.  Succumbing to studio demands as a rookie film director on the 3rd installment of the Alien franchise, it appears the experience was influential in creating the director we know today, who began to take major ownership of his work and has a reputation of being a major control freak.

Fincher may have been new to feature films at the time, but he had already begun to make a name for himself in the commercial and music video world. Partnering frequently with director of photography, Jeff Cronenweth, the pair has delivered some of the very best work on digital that’s ever been put to screen.  Gone Girl also marks the third straight collaboration with musicians Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.  The duo’s morbid and ambient sounds have been the perfect complement for the tone of Fincher’s work.  Even today he continues to branch out with a short return to the music video world and directing two episodes of the series, House of Cards, for which he won an Emmy.  Fincher is also a two-time Oscar nominee for Best Director. Here’s an ordered look at director David Fincher’s other nine films:

#9. Fight Club

Grade: C+

The 1999 cult-classic starring Edward Norton, in an incredible leading performance, has been dissected to death in the 15 years since its release.  With a disappointing theater run, it found new life on home video and gained a reputation of being the “cool” movie that young film buffs proudly boast about.  It’s a satire with biting commentary on consumerism, self-destruction, and violence, with a wicked twist that’s actually insanely easy to spot when you think about it.  What puts Fight Club at the bottom of the rankings for me is its inability to entertain.  I appreciate, as always, the dark and moody tone that is prevalent throughout much of Fincher’s filmography, but ultimately it’s an overhyped, disappointing example of style over substance.

#8. The Game

Grade: B

The Game is once again an exercise in style over substance, but a large portion of the film is undeniably gripping.  Michael Douglas is admirable in his role as the target of “The Game”, Nicholas Van Orton.  Watching this one man’s world spiral out of control as he struggles to piece together the most twisted jigsaw puzzle ever throughout the 129-minute runtime can be pretty enthralling, but it’s overwrought at times and the quasi-twist ending is somewhat lackluster.  It’s not a classic by any means, but it again demonstrates Fincher’s knack for successfully portraying characters rotting away with angst, as well as his adept control over pacing and tension.

#7. Panic Room

Grade: B

Perhaps the most successful area of Panic Room is Jodie Foster’s role, which marked Fincher’s first film with a female protagonist.  It’s a solid thriller that plays in almost real-time and there are also some strong supporting turns from Jared Leto, the always amiable, Forest Whitaker, and pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart.  Coming off the heels of Fight Club, it’s somewhat forgotten, and it also would be the last film Fincher would director for the next five years.  It’s definitely a strong watch and worthy of a rental, at least, for anyone who may have let this one slip through the cracks.

#6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Grade: B+

Rooney Mara had a small role in The Social Network, prior to shooting Dragon, but it was enough to catch Fincher’s eye as he cast her in the title role of Lisbeth Salander.  She’s absolutely mesmerizing, commanding every scene she’s in and delivering one of the best performances in any Fincher film to date.  Daniel Craig is also right at home as the grizzled journalist, Mikael Blomkvist.  Considering this was adapted from a wildly popular novel with an already acclaimed Swedish version of the entire trilogy, Fincher was in some respects facing an uphill battle from the start.  It’s not entirely successful on every level, but there are some great moments sprinkled throughout including a tantalizing opening credits sequence and a few moments that may be hard to stomach from some viewers, but in essence, that’s Fincher’s specialty.

#5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Grade: B+

It’s difficult not to view Button as Fincher taking a swing at some ripe Oscar bait.  Expanded from a F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, adapted for the screen by the Forrest Gump writer, on the surface, this Southern epic doesn’t seem like one that would attract Fincher, especially considering his filmography up to that point, but it was apparently the recent passing of his father – and this film's somber examination of death – that attracted him to the project.  Despite the film’s thematic bleakness, the cinematography is gorgeous and lush, perhaps the best of any film he’s directed.

Button runs a little long in the end and the present day story of Daisy does seem to weigh down the already heavy story and saturate it with even more melancholy.  Pitt and Blanchett are magnificent here and it’s around this time you could really sense Fincher was pulling the very best out of his actors, with even those in brief supporting roles leaving lasting impressions.  It wasn’t the awards juggernaut that it seemed poised to be, and despite being a slight letdown, it’s nonetheless enjoyable to see a master of his craft at work here. 

#4. Gone Girl

Grade: A-

Prior to being released, one of the most intriguing aspects of Fincher’s Gone Girl was the surprise casting announcements.  Ben Affleck, always capable, but never quite a standout, was penciled in for the leading role of Nick Dunne.  Rosamund Pike had barely made a name for herself up that point.  Then you throw in Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris – not exactly the names you’d expect when you think “Fincher movie”.  What resulted was an astonishing display of some of the very best acting you can get.  Everyone previously mentioned turned in perhaps career best, especially Affleck who appeared tailor-made for this role.  The story is a thrilling ride from start to finish, with twists and turns at every corner and a conclusion that should leave everyone stunned, as well as a little frightened.

#3. The Social Network

Grade: A

Coming off the heels of the Oscar-baity Benjamin Button was, ironically, the film for which Fincher rightfully deserved to win Best Director.  Facebook’s popularity seemingly peaked around 2009 with everyone in the world practically signing up and subsequently finding themselves wasting endless hours on the social media site.  Pair Fincher with heralded screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, with a story detailing the trials and tribulations of the site’s launch, and you have the zeitgeist film of the late-2000s.  It’s an intricately directed showcase for the auteur, and once again the performances across the board are extraordinary, most notably Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg.

#2. Se7en

Grade: A

This 1995 thriller was the first of three collaborations between Fincher and leading man, Brad Pitt, and essentially put the director on the map.  From a narrative perspective, it may be his best work.  The story unfolds revealing each of the seven sins, illustrated in murderous fashion, and Fincher deftly navigates us deeper into the twisted mind of John Doe in a way that we’re both horrified and yet intrigued to see where the story takes us.  In a stroke of brilliance, Fincher forced the studio to leave Kevin Spacey’s name out of the opening credits, which makes his reveal in the second half of the film all the more effective.  There’s not a smile to be had in Se7en.  It’s a morose, nihilistic tale, with some of the most disturbing imagery the director has ever put on screen and 20 years later, remains one of the best films ever made.  

#1. Zodiac

Grade: A

Some of my favorite films of all-time are ones that I enjoyed upon first viewing but found an urge to revisit frequently; growing on me with each subsequent viewing.   I found Zodiac intriguing and impressive on first watch, but after going back a few more times, it became apparent that this was easily my favorite Fincher film and a near masterpiece.  The movie tells the story of the Zodiac killer who terrorized the Bay area in the 1960s and 70s.  The story is laid out very simply, but the film is at its core a character study.  We see how this exhausting case affects the lives of some of the main individuals involved, and this is presented throughout the span of 22-years. 

The movie was in theaters for a brief run and had a disappointing gross, due to perhaps mis-marketing, as any of those expecting a common slasher/thriller will be rightfully disappointed.  The main cast includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr, all putting in some of their finest work and given almost equal time to shine.  The screenplay is impeccable and Fincher’s direction is an exercise is restraint, but a showcase for his ability to convey and master atmosphere.  There are only a handful of murder scenes in the 157-minute running time that are admirable in execution, as well uncomfortable by how realistic they seem to be.  After all, the killer left key witnesses alive who could retell their stories.  It’s not an easy film to enjoy, but it should be viewed by any who may have overlooked this underrated classic.

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