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The David Fincher You Meet in His Movies

The protagonists of everything from ‘Fight Club’ to ‘Zodiac’ to ‘Gone Girl’ have something in common: they’re all cut from the same cloth as their director

Mario Zucca

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social Network, The Ringer hereby dubs September 21-25 David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.

No filmmaker has ever put himself into his work like Alfred Hitchcock. In movie after movie, the director made blink-or-miss-them appearances located at the edge of the frame—crossing a street walking a dog; appearing in a photo for a weight loss clinic—that prompted audiences to play a game of spot-the-auteur. These slyly miniaturized acts of showmanship were simultaneously sight gags and wry reminders of who was really in charge: The so-called “master of suspense” mixed in among the actors he infamously referred to as “cattle.”

David Fincher has not appeared in any of his own films: the closest thing to a cameo comes in 2014’s Gone Girl, a positively Hitchcockian thriller right down to its shower scene featuring a bloody blond. Midway through the film, suspected wife killer Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is being coached on an upcoming television appearance by his high-priced lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), who’s determined that his client makes just the right impression. During their dressing room prep session, the attorney pelts Nick with gummy bears to sharpen his posture and line readings. Perry supposedly didn’t know who Fincher was before being cast in the part, but that doesn’t preclude the fact that in this scene, he’s doing an indirect impression of his director—a control freak who once said there are only two ways to shoot any given scene, and that one of them is always wrong.

Besides being a very funny riff on the myth of “Mr. Right”—and featuring Affleck’s best screen performance, notwithstanding his contemplative beard-growing in the coda to The TownGone Girl makes Fincher’s idea of one-way-or-another literal by telling its story through two competing viewpoints. There’s the view of Nick, a shitty husband and worse magazine writer who becomes a modern analog to one of Hitchcock’s “wrong men,” and also that of Amy (Rosamund Pike), his wife who disappears mysteriously from their Missouri town and whose perspective on events serves variously to obscure, explain, and complicate the film’s story line. Unsurprisingly for a director whose fame is predicated partially on a gift for Big Twists—most effectively in Se7en and Fight ClubGone Girl’s his-and-hers storytelling is booby-trapped: Both narrative strands feature unreliable narration. But between Perry’s candy-throwing tirade and the meticulous efforts of Pike’s Type A (for “Amazing”) Amy to incriminate her lesser half, the movie’s subtext is straight-ahead, unsubtle, and, in counterpoint to the material’s pedigree, palpably personal. For all Gone Girl’s wonderful evocations of elusiveness and absence, Fincher and his trademark perfectionism are front and center.

You don’t have to look very hard to discern Fincher’s presence in his movies. While a more mysterious artist like David Lynch styles his movies in the form of Rorschach tests, Fincher crafts his thrillers as slick, geometrically precise diagrams. Even when they’re ugly, the nastiness is hyper-designed and no less pungent for being so beautifully bottled. One beguiling paradox of Fincher’s films is that they consistently belittle commercialism while feeling definitively branded; another is that they caution against fanaticism while reflecting that mindset in their making. Of all the front-rank American directors to emerge since the mid-’90s, Fincher has cultivated an (in)famous reputation as a micromanager who holds his collaborators to a dizzying, exhausting standard in the hunt for hard, diamond-like flawlessness. “I don’t think of myself as difficult,” Fincher told The Hollywood Reporter in 2011. “We’re expected to do stuff that’s awesome, and that means we’re going to have to push each other.”

The narrative of Fincher’s career is well established and compelling: He’s a former special-effects technician turned music-video tyro who emerged at the end of the 1980s with a sexy, shadowy aesthetic. The filmmaker helmed a series of eye-catching commercials; co-founded the hip production company Propaganda; hot-wired heavy-rotation clips such as Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” and Madonna’s “Express Yourself;” and effectively collapsed the distance between Hollywood and MTV by treating the shorter format as its own valid mode of cinematic expression. At the time, neither music videos nor commercials were taken seriously as containers for genuine artistry, but like his spiritual predecessor Ridley Scott, Fincher had an eye for hypnotic, hallucinatory compositions even as his impetus was to undermine commodity fetishism. His brilliant 1984 American Cancer Society PSA depicting a cigarette-wielding fetus in utero is such a sublime amalgam of high-concept shock tactics, state-of-the-art special effects, and punkish, implicitly politicized subversion that it’s amazing he ever improved on it. But he did, and after the much-publicized false start of Alien 3, he parlayed and deepened the grotesque invention of that anti-smoking ad into the abject gory poetry of Se7en, in the process proceeding almost directly into the mainstream vanguard.

Se7en, which turns 25 this year, is arguably a perfect movie, which isn’t to say that it’s Fincher’s best work, or that its perfection is without problematic aspects. Taking cues cribbed from German expressionism, 1940s noir, and contemporary installation art (especially the visionary vivisections of Damien Hirst), Fincher and his brilliant collaborators—especially cinematographer Darius Khondji and production designer Arthur Max—crafted a work of paradoxical immaculateness, inverting the relationship between ugliness and beauty and cultivating something like sublime disgust in every frame. The question with Se7en is more of an ethical one, i.e., whether you feel the film actually aligns the viewer with the dogged detectives played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt or the serial killer they’re chasing, one John Doe, a piously sociopathic cipher played by Kevin Spacey.

My feeling has always been that Se7en is a movie made in John Doe’s image: an act of communion between filmmaker and villain whose satisfaction resides in the latter’s unqualified (if horrifying) triumph. If there’s a more satisfying unsatisfying ending in the modern thriller canon, I don’t know it. That said, there’s also a sense that Se7en is a blueprint for Fincher’s subsequent—and in a way, more mature and morally complex—forays into procedural drama. While detectives Somerset and Mills are both weathered cop archetypes (the lifer and the hotshot; the mentor and the protégé) they’re also sticklers for detail. As Fincher’s myth as a micromanager grew with each new film, so did the significance of Se7en’s inch-by-inch approach to narrative, in which the characters’ determination to discover, deconstruct, and catalog every gruesome clue has its own pathology. If John Doe is a show-off sadist leaving bread crumbs for his pursuers, it’s only because our heroes’ appetites are so voracious. They are, quite literally, gluttons for punishment.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac.
Paramount Pictures

Fanatical investigators are at the center of Fincher’s best movie, 2007’s haunting procedural Zodiac, as well as his superlative Netflix series Mindhunter. Both are terrific pieces of work with self-reflexive dimensions; they function separately and together as interrogations of the serial-killer chic that Se7en helped to enshrine. What unites Zodiac’s SFPD lifers Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) and David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) with Mindhunter’s FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench’s (Holt McCallany)—beyond their stylin’ ’70s fashions and the fact that they’re all based on real people—is their mutual, troubling conflation of professional obligation and personal obsession. While these guys are ostensibly authority figures working to either bring criminals to justice or understand them and their crimes after the fact, Fincher turns them into neurotic, quixotic strivers. Their insatiable desire for closure—especially when it’s either unlikely or impossible—manifests as a form of self-destruction. Zodiac is singularly frightening because of what it reveals about the remorseless predator at its core, but also for what it withholds, including any certainty about its namesake’s identity. Mindhunter’s brilliant first season is disturbing because Holden’s increasing ability to understand the monsters he’s profiling on the bureau’s time and dime blinds him to his own unsettling transformation. He’s a behavioral scientist growing ever more erratic with each new assignment.

The procedural trilogy of Se7en, Zodiac, and Mindhunter forms the hard spine of Fincher’s career, but there’s meat on the bones elsewhere. Taken together, The Game, Fight Club, and Panic Room, all made between 1997 and 2002, represent a young master filmmaker’s attempt to leverage his commercial potential without selling out. He did so most spectacularly in Fight Club, a movie determined to not only bite the proverbial hand that fed it, but also to regurgitate it all over a Friday-night audience. As a Gen X manifesto about wannabe tough guys striving to puncture their collective numbness one haymaker at a time, Fight Club was ahead of the curve; its bleak, misanthropic comedy not only diagnosed a nascent, hive-minded, incel sensibility, but gave it a seductive frontman in the form of Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden, one of two proto-MRA icons from the epochal movie year of 1999 along with Magnolia’s Frank T.J. Mackey.

The joke, of course, is that Tyler, a figure of impossible charisma and preternatural physical beauty (perfectly inhabited by Pitt at the apex of his own movie-star potency) is not real. Instead, he’s merely a narcissistic projection of Edward Norton’s spiritually hollow, IKEA-shopping corporate drone. In Fight Club’s brutal, bludgeoning “manosphere,” brotherhood is about spilling blood, and inside every passive beta male there’s a flamboyant Chad trying to fight—or shoot—his way out. The film’s satire of masculine rituals and malaise honored Chuck Palahniuk’s bestselling source novel while also nodding to film history. By depicting modern society as a consumerist prison and then making us root (however uneasily) for the inmates to take over the asylum, Fincher effectively conjured up the ghost of A Clockwork Orange.

Brad Pitt in Fight Club.
20th Century Fox

Fight Club courted controversy, and its makers got what they wanted, if not in terms of box-office receipts than certainly as far as cultural staying power. While neither Tyler nor the film’s nameless narrator are necessarily Fincherian figures, Pitt and Norton became (dorm room) poster boys for the idea of a weaponized Hollywood cinema that could batter audiences, critics, and cultural watchdogs into submission. At the same time, the most nightmarish aspect of Fight Club scans as an examination of the director’s own potential anxieties about control, or the loss thereof: The film is a battle of wills in which the main character keeps ceding ground to his more aggressive doppelgänger, blacking out at regular intervals and awakening in new, inescapable predicaments. What’s at stake in Fight Club isn’t just the ethics of domestic terrorism (about which this proudly juvenile movie doesn’t say anything of substance), but the nature of reality itself. It presents a metaphysical inkling that links it to the less ambitious (but equally fascinating) paranoid psychodrama of The Game.

The great twist of The Game is not narrative but conceptual: It’s a wrong-man thriller in which the main character enters willingly into his own nightmare. By agreeing to the terms of the elaborate role-playing diversion purchased for him by his wayward younger brother, Michael Douglas’s master-of-industry Nicholas Van Orton effectively catalyzes his own comeuppance—and The Game is absolutely punitive when it comes to putting a rich white guy through the wringer. It’s wonderfully funny to see Douglas, a veteran at playing guys whose lives are under threat from vengeful lovers and/or exes, trying to get his head around the fact that everybody he meets is seemingly out to get him, and struggling—on behalf of the audience—to determine the location of the line between escapism and extermination. The operatives of the sinister, parallax-ish entity known as CRS are either shape-shifters or faceless, behind-the-scenes types; cumulatively, they are Fincher’s merciless surrogates, stage-managing Nicholas’s torment in a series of “scenes” that parody spy thrillers and horror movies. The film culminates in a remarkable scene when Douglas, seeking the wizard behind the curtain, stumbles into a surreal version of a studio commissary to see everybody he’s interacted with throughout the story gathered together running lines over lunch—an unforgettably creepy and hilarious image informed by Fincher’s approach to cinema as a sleek, customized act of world-building.

The metaphor of life-as-filmmaking also surfaces in 2002’s Panic Room, a mercenary excursion into auteurism-for-hire that’s become weirdly underappreciated as Fincher’s egghead stock has gone up. While the film ultimately adds up to little more than a self-contained thrill ride, it’s got a viselike grip. Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) is barricaded inside her new multimillion-dollar New York brownstone’s safe room with her preteen daughter while burglars lurk through the basement in search of buried treasure. Altman represents the anxious face of a nouveau-riche cohort worried that somebody’s out to get them. But Panic Room isn’t just about class warfare. The film was widely criticized at the time for privileging style over substance—i.e. shots tracking through the handle of a coffee pot—and Fincher shrewdly makes style into a subject, choreographing the action through weightless, computer-assisted camera moves that suggest what Hitchcock might have done with access to digital editing software. It’s not just that Panic Room features acrobatic, impossible camerawork, but that the bravura artificiality of the staging is synced to the theme of people ensnared by their own high-end technology.

Foster’s excellent performance in Panic Room as a woman holding her own in a world of dangerous, psychologically unstable males recalls Sigourney Weaver’s seething, resentful incarnation of Ripley in Alien 3, and both movies can be filed under the “gender politics” section of Fincher’s filmography alongside Gone Girl and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The Social Network, meanwhile, is a docudrama made under the sign of Fight Club, minus anything like a Tyler Durden figure. Its Ivy League boys’ club is replete with various specimens of beta male insecurity, beginning with Jesse Eisenberg’s callow Mark Zuckerberg, an ambivalently villainous characterization that’s aged about as well over the past decade as its subject has not. If Panic Room heralded Fincher’s increasingly fetishistic relationship to technology, The Social Network confirmed and escalated it, dramatizing one primal scene of social media and using CGI with more symbolic aplomb than any movie since Terminator 2. What are Armie Hammer’s hulking, neo-aristocratic Winklevoss twins but cousins to the T-1000, flawless simulacrums hailing from Harvard by way of the uncanny valley? It’s a great dual performance in the service of a wittily paranoid conceit: The Winkelvii were seemingly dreamt up in a mean-spirited mainframe to antagonize a shrimpy, schlubby genius who knows in the depths of his soul that no matter how good he is at coding, he’ll never row crew.

In 2010, The Social Network was seen as Fincher’s successful initiation into the prestige-movie club following the mixed bag of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which garnered Oscar nominations and respect without leaving a significant pop-cultural footprint. The film’s combination of big, open emotions and quiet, existential dread represented a minor shift in sensibility for Fincher—but not necessarily a redirection. By telling the story of a man inexplicably aging backward, Fincher raised questions about eternity and circularity that orbited back to 2001: A Space Odyssey—all contained within a period-piece framework closer to Forrest Gump.

A curious case of a director at once fully in control and temperamentally adrift, Benjamin Button was maybe too tasteful for its own good.

Meanwhile, Fincher’s decision to direct The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo hinted at his appetite for trash. For a filmmaker of such gifts to stoop to adapting a Stieg Larsson novel already given a serviceably trashy Swedish-language movie adaptation—especially coming off of the triumph of The Social Network—was, as they say, a choice. What seems to fascinate Fincher in his beautifully made adaptation of Dragon Tattoo is not the absurd, mechanical potboiler plot, which not even Hitchcock could have made plausible, but the ways the union of Daniel Craig’s pavement-pounding magazine reporter and Rooney Mara’s spiky hacker hybridizes analog and digital sensibilities. On one level, Fincher is fascinated by old-school textures and protocols, which is why Zodiac is so mesmerizing; on the other, he’s a technocrat, and while Lisbeth Salander is by no means his alter ego, she’s definitely a character in his wheelhouse. Salander is as stringent and unsympathetic in her worldview as John Doe but fighting on the side of good.

Which brings us back to Gone Girl, a movie that hyperbolizes the idea of a femme fatale to the point of over-the-top, absurdist comedy. Pike’s Amy Dunne is so diabolical that she’s basically a cartoon, while the film’s wild stylization represents a form of mass-market risk-taking: the movie was a commercial slam dunk, but Fincher adorned it with a set of alienation effects anyway.

Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl.
20th Century Fox

Certainly, Gone Girl is easily enjoyed as perfumed trash, and just as easily disparaged as frictionless, smirking, self-satisfiedly soulless “satire;” the dichotomy in the film’s reception is not merely his and hers, but also love it or hate It. But to really engage with the movie, and with the character of Amy as a reflection of Fincher’s directorial presence, it’s necessary to re-invoke Se7en and the idea of sympathy for the devil—of complicity with Amy, not only in light of her own betrayal by her cheating husband, but also her wonderful, irrepressible sense of style. Originally, Amy’s plan is to frame Nick for his sins and then kill herself (insert an iconic shot of a Post-it note in movie history), a suicidal ideation so simpatico with John Doe’s M.O. that you almost wish some matchmaker could have set them up. When she impulsively makes the decision to live to see her ex punished and beyond, it’s like an affirmation of her desire—and ability—to keep stage-managing reality on her own terms. Because Affleck is so hilariously typecast in his media-whipping-boy role, his scenes almost seem to direct themselves, while the Amy material—and the way the tone and pace feel keyed to Pike’s terse, hectoring energy—shows Fincher at his most virtuoso, as if motivated by a bizarre, even touching sense of artistic solidarity.

The speculation around Fincher’s upcoming, black-and-white Netflix production Mank is that it will go further than any of his previous efforts in allegorizing the filmmaking process. Originally scripted by Fincher’s father Jack in 2003, Mank chronicles the bitter feud between Orson Welles and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz during the shooting and in the aftermath of Citizen Kane. Few Hollywood legends are more enduring than Welles, who showed quicksilver brilliance in directing, producing, cowriting and starring in his feature debut at the age of 25. By focusing on Mankiewicz and his side of the story—a narrative already recounted in a contentious 1971 essay by Pauline Kael—Fincher is potentially exploding the myth of Welles’s solo, totalizing brilliance. He’s also returning to the themes of betrayal that animated The Social Network, which ended with an indirect but unmistakable homage to Citizen Kane, with Rooney Mara’s character Erica Albright revealed as Zuckerburg’s flesh-and-blood Rosebud.

It may still be too early to properly slot Fincher in the lineage of Welles or Hitchcock, although of all the mainstream directors who’ve tried to emulate the latter, he’s probably come the closest—both in terms of his technical skill and his ability to, in Hitch’s words, “play the audience like a piano.” In the 2015 documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, Fincher makes a rare on-screen appearance, telling filmmaker Kent Jones that Hitchcock rewrote the rules of cinema by throwing a grenade into a conference room. It’s an observation that suggests Fincher will always have a thing for strategic extremists, from John Doe to Tyler Durden to the Amazing Amy, who create by destroying—they’re control freaks who’d rather blow it all up than commit to compromise.