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The Master Plan and the Master Planner
There's a character type that runs through David Fincher's work. Call it the Architect: The person—or group, or sometimes even just an intangible force—that sits at the center of the story, often shrouded in mystery, often playing an elaborate chess game with the lead characters as pawns. Kevin Spacey in Seven is one of the great chess-master serial killers, wrapping the detectives played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt in his murderous tapestry. Many years later, Spacey's headlining role as political mastermind Frank Underwood in the Fincher-created House of Cards is basically Mr. Doe Goes to Washington
In The Game, Michael Douglas finds himself trapped in a paranoid world where everyone really is out to get him. The nightmare architecture of The Game gets repeated in the final act of Fight Club, as Edward Norton's nameless narrator struggles against the omnipresent, practically omniscient Project Mayhem. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's ultimate nemesis is a more straightforward soliloquizing-serial-killer archetype than John Doe—but you could argue that the Architect of Dragon Tattoo is actually Lisbeth Salander, who embarks on a very Tyler Durden-esque mission of mayhem (computer hacking, wiping bank accounts, taking on The System) in the film's final act.
You can understand why Fincher reacted to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, a book that shifts perspective between brutish husband Nick and missing wife Amy, constructing a fearful symmetry of half-truths even before the story's major twists kick in. The mystery at the core of Gone Girl feels equivalent to the demonic antagonist of Fincher's masterpiece Zodiac. The genius of Zodiac is how it constantly teases you with the presence of an Architect, only to pull the rug out—sometimes a scary man in a basement is just a scary man in a basement. Zodiac is sort of like The Game without the third-act reveal: The movie's central horror is that there might not be a master plan, after all.
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The Silence of the Lambs kick-started the serial killer vogue, but Seven defined the genre. John Doe's decision to base all his murders on the Seven Deadly Sins launched a million elevator-pitch murder plotlines. (Murders based on Edgar Allen Poe! Murders based on urban legends!) Fincher returned to the genre, and in many ways deconstructed it, with Zodiac. And The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo imagines a serial killer who likes to do his nasty business while listening to Enya. Why the obsession with mass murderers?
Fincher likes to shroud his killers in mystery. Usually, he literally shrouds them: John Doe first appears in Seven as a shadowy out-of-focus figure, as subtle as a Dick Tracy villain. He's a distant cousin of Raoul, the home invader who lingers around the margins of Panic Room before his deeper madness is revealed. For Fincher, there is something profoundly unknowable about serial killers—and something magnificent, which is why John Doe gets the last word in Seven.
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Because Seven starred Brad Pitt at his young-pretty, mid-'90s peak, it's easy to forget that the film really belongs to Morgan Freeman. He's our initial viewpoint character, and we see Pitt's young-hotshot cop through Freeman's amused-mentor perspective. And what's striking about Freeman's Somerset is just how lonely he is: A man living in a quiet house, he seems uncomfortable walking into the domestic sphere where Pitt's Mills and his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) are trying to make a home. Later in the movie, we learn that Somerset was in love long ago, then the girl got pregnant, and Somerset asked/demanded that she get an abortion.
This revelation comes in a casual diner scene, where Tracy reveals to Somerset that she is considering having an abortion. It's not one of Seven's most famous scenes, but it's a remarkable standout in Fincher's filmography: Somerset's whole central idea, that it might be better not to have children, is exemplary of a certain instinct towards loneliness that runs throughout Fincher's work. Michael Douglas in The Game is a lonely rich man in a lonely rich house. Edward Norton in Fight Club is a lonely white-collar businessman sleepwalking through his IKEA apartment. In Panic Room, we meet Jodie Foster fresh from her divorce—and her big new apartment feels epidemic of the confused emptiness at the end of a long relationship.
In Fincher's later work, the drive toward loneliness becomes an explicit character trait. Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac lets his obsession with the case ruin his marriage; Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network becomes impossibly successful only after he sheds his closest friends. Slightly more positive is the weird final act of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button wherein Brad Pitt's backwards-aging Benjamin spends the later decades of his life away from his family, basically walking the earth like Caine in Kung Fu.
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Digital Effects Invading the Real World
Every director uses digital effects today, usually to create fantasy worlds or uncanny action scenes. But Fincher was one of the first directors to use digital effects as a way to explore (and de-familiarize) the recognizable real world. Fight Club's camera moves through the trash in Edward Norton's desk—and the only sex scene in the movie was filmed using the bullet time technique from The Matrix, transforming the actors' nude bodies into ethereal abstractions. Fincher pushed the innovations of Fight Club into near-parody in the overly excitable Panic Room, where the camera swoops through household objects and doorframes.
A couple years after Fincher made Panic Room, his particular fascination with digital-reality reached a peak with the music video for Nine Inch Nails' ''Only,'' wherein normal objects on a normal desk start coming to (CGI-assisted) life. And one way to understand the semi-inexplicable Benjamin Button is to imagine the movie as a laboratory for Fincher, experimenting with performance-capture effects to create Brad Pitt's ancient toddler. Fincher's digital addition has gotten less showy in his recent work, but it hasn't gone away: The director will often combine multiple takes into a single shot using digital composition, which is what can make his films look eerily beautiful (or sometimes just weirdly plastic).
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Darkness and a Single Light
Part of what makes Fincher such a fun subject of study is that he doesn't have an obvious visual-trope toolkit: No Abrams-y lens flares, no Wes Andersonian X-axis, no Spielbergian looking-into-the-sky. But Fincher's films do have a vivid, constant look: Draped in darkness and shadow, with a single color pervading or even dominating the frame. Panic Room is a showcase for this side of Fincher: A film set almost entirely at night in a house with the lights off. The Social Network could be seen as an unlikely entry in Fincher's work—nobody dies—but part of the movie's central frisson is how Fincher shoots everything like a thriller, bathing nerdy Jesse Eisenberg in noir-dark lights like he's the second coming of Harry Lime.
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When people talk about Fincher, they usually talk about his style: The antiseptic light falling on androidal skin, the magazine-ad compositions. It's possible to accuse Fincher of being completely invested in style over substance: An accusation that gains weight when you consider a movie like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a gorgeously composed ''adventure'' that never really goes anywhere.
So what is Fincher all about, exactly? The most common consensus is Obsession. His Architect characters are obsessed with their own elaborate plotting. Fincher himself is a famously meticulous demi-Kubrick, insisting on dozens or hundreds of takes. This is why Zodiac feels like Fincher's most personal work—the central characters all become obsessed with the title character until their lives are consumed by their own obsession.
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The Passage of Time
Or maybe The Curious Case of Benjamin Button isn't an outlier; maybe it's part of the key to understanding Fincher's deeper themes. Benjamin Button hyperbolizes an F. Scott Fitzgerald short satire into a fantasy of a man's life: As Benjamin gets younger, we see him lose his parents, take a lover, have a child.
Maybe what scares and fascinates Fincher the most is the simple passage of time. Two of his most well-known commercials take a panoramic view of time: The lives of two football players, and the history of Earth, basically. Time is the ultimate nemesis in Zodiac, a movie that begins with the structure of a mystery-thriller and then becomes scarier as it becomes chronological, the years passing before the graying protagonists' eyes. The shock-cut of time is the central narrative structure of The Social Network—we witness Zuckerberg's rise from the perspective of two rotating lawsuits and his best friend becoming a bitter enemy, back and forth through time.
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Then again, maybe it's simpler to look at Fincher as our preeminent practitioner of noir—albeit uniquely modern noir, where half of the mystery is figuring out what kind of mystery is being solved. Fight Club gets remembered today for the big, T-shirt-worthy speeches, but the film is also a meticulously crafted mystery. Coming out in theaters just a couple months after The Sixth Sense, Fight Club has a final-act twist that's every bit as wild—and if anything, the twist in Fincher's film is more convincing, insofar as there are clues spread throughout almost every scene. And in Gone Girl, the central mystery is constructed on a 3-D chessboard, where it's hard to even say what crime has been committed, much less who committed it.
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Fincher's most consistent onscreen collaborator, Pitt received one of his first truly great star showcases in Seven. The way Fincher uses Pitt in the movie is telling: At a time when most filmmakers were playing off the actor's golden-god good looks, Fincher beats him to a pulp midway through. (And that's just a prelude for the final, devastating gut punch.) Fincher doubled down on that abuse in Fight Club, transforming Pitt into a new kind of masochist superman.
Pitt's presence is part of the central weirdness of Fight Club. When Tyler Durden points at a Calvin Klein ad for a skimpy man-thong and asks, ''Is that what a man looks like?'' it's hard to forget that Pitt basically was that guy in his original showcase Thelma & Louise—not to mention the fact that Fincher's camera lingers obsessively on Pitt's ridiculously cut body. There's something equally weird at work in Benjamin Button—only Fincher would cast Brad Pitt in a movie and make him look like a cartoon-baby Donald Rumsfeld for the first half hour. By far their most lighthearted collaboration was a Heineken commercial that ran during the 2005 Super Bowl.
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Fincher's relationship with the Nine Inch Nails frontman began with the opening credits sequence of Seven, although their first proper collaboration was the music video for ''Only.'' That was just prelude: Reznor and Atticus Ross have become Fincher's go-to soundtrackers, composing the Oscar-winning score for The Social Network and providing the moody tones for Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl.
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Because Fincher's filmography is so tied into a certain scuzzy-chic sensibility—steam flowing out of pipes, the bleak dystopi-Gotham of Seven—it's worth remembering that Fincher may have a retro, even romantic heart. His video for Madonna's ''Vogue,'' all the dreamy dancing scenes in Benjamin Button, the jazz-gloss of ''Suit and Tie'': It all speaks to an upper-crust sensibility, the kind of stuff that Tyler Durden would want to explode.
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Science Fiction For the Modern Age
Fincher has come close to making big action movies. At one point, he was onboard to helm Mission: Impossible 3; he's also been circling an adaptation of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and certainly it's easy to see how an obsessive Architect-type like Captain Nemo would fit into Fincher's filmography.
Yet Fincher is rather unique among modern big-name directors in that he hasn't ever made a straight-up sci-fi flick. There's one exception: Alien 3, a film that Fincher has essentially disowned and which is mostly interesting for anyone who wants to see a master director in his infancy achieving mildly interesting things along the margins of mediocrity.
But Alien 3 does feel in step with much of Fincher's work—and I think it's because so much of Fincher's work takes a fantastical, genre-inflected look at the real world. Many of the early scenes of Fight Club suggest a real world invaded by outside forces—Edward Norton's apartment isn't just an apartment, it's an advertisement for IKEA. Zodiac prequelizes that sensibility, presenting the early '70s as a time when the rise of mass media conjured up a strange new power. (A prank caller could be a terrorist; a single killer could hold a city hostage.) And The Social Network locks into the central fascination of the Internet age: How a simple idea can become a society-altering experience and, in the process, rapidly age excitable young college kids into emotionless big-business tycoons. There's an angle on The Social Network where it almost feels like Peanuts, chronicling a group of children squabbling while adult authority figures bleat helplessly in the background.
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Men Who Destroy Themselves
Or maybe it's simpler to approach Fincher as the chic nihilist that so many of his films proclaim him to be. Suicide runs throughout his work. John Doe's final act attempts to transform the murderer into his own victim. Fight Club's loopy premise turns the lead character's internal struggle into an external battle with his own darkest self. The Game can be seen as an elaborate act of suicide prevention—although that only becomes clear that Michael Douglas tries to commit suicide.
His fall off a building resembles Ripley's fall in Alien 3, although her action is more complicated, and more openly heroic. Because if Fincher likes men who fight themselves, he also likes...
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Women Who Fight Back
Fincher doesn't like Alien 3, but it makes sense that his first big break came in the Alien franchise. Sigourney Weaver's Ripley is one of the great action heroines, fighting back against the xenomorphic menace. Alien 3 takes the rape allegory at the center of all the movies and specifically applies it to Ripley as she carries an alien baby she doesn't want; the whole movie is structured, in a sense, as her vengeance on the man/thing that wronged her.
Female vengeance is the centerpiece of Panic Room, wherein a jilted housewife fights back against the men invading her house. It's the central underlying factor of the showcase scene of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a movie that explicitly casts Rooney Mara as a vengeful superhero for wronged women everywhere. And Gone Girl might be the high point in Fincher's feministic filmography—all the more because of how the film complicates our perspective on the title character.