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DAVID FINCHER, RANKED

THE DARKNESS AND THE SOUL OF A LEGENDARY FILMMAKER

FILM FEATURE
LATEST REVIEWS
By Daniel Lammin
19th November 2020

Let me get this out of the way from the beginning - David Fincher is my favourite living filmmaker. I know that's a very "male film buff" thing to say, but as the years have gone on, and my understanding of cinema and the discourse around it has grown, so too has my love for his work. I discovered his films when I was 15, when my dad sat me down and showed me 'Se7en' for the first time. Seeing 'Zodiac' in the cinema was one of the great theatre-going experiences of my life, and I still remember the shock and awe it drew from me. My relationship with his work has been a love affair, one that has grown deep and richer with every passing year.

We often talk about his formal and technical control, a conversation that leans uncomfortably close to the cult of auteurism, but what makes Fincher extraordinary is the way in which his complete control marries so beautifully with a very deep and human core - a need to dig below the surface of whatever story or genre he is exploring and speak to the nature of who we are. It just so happens that his path is often the dark and dangerous one, edging towards uncomfortable revelations that he forcefully (and sometimes gleefully) pushes in our faces.

With the long-awaited release of his latest feature film 'Mank', I decided to rewatch his films in chronological order and work out why his work has affected and inspired me so much. In the process, I've done that very "male film buff" thing of ranking them. The truth is that almost all of his films are extraordinary, and a good few of them are practically perfect. What became clear in revisiting these great, great films is that that there is something unifying in the work of cinema's Prince of Darkness, something far more hopeful and soulful than you might expect.

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10
'ALIEN³' (1992)

"You've been in my life so long, I can't remember anything else."

It's hard to know what to make of 'Alien³'. It had enormous expectations to live up to, and everything conceivable working against it, but while it was seen as a disaster at the time, it has continued to grow in appreciation. Part of that may be due to the absolute audacity of its premise; to strip everything familiar and beloved from the 'Alien' franchise to the point where the bone itself is chipped to pieces.

I suspect, however, a lot of the growing love for the film is the fact that it is David Fincher's first film. It has become less an 'Alien' film and more a fascinating artefact in which we search for clues of the filmmaker to come. And they're all there in spades, especially in the restored Assembly Cut. There are the obvious tropes - a playfulness with new technology, a dark and gritty aesthetic and an embrace of the violent and the gory - but it's also there in just how much time and care he puts into Ripley's humanity. This is a film about a woman haunted and crippled by the trauma of her past, and her battle with the alien both outside and within her that is the conquering of her past. Fincher is trying to make this a soulful requiem of a film, and if the screenplay won't let him, he'll use everything else at his disposal to achieve that. In the end, what dooms 'Alien³' is its abominable screenplay, written by two men who have nothing but contempt for the franchise they are in charge of. It's understandable that Fincher disowns this film, but I do think it deserves a place in his filmography, if only as a sign of things to come.

9
'THE GAME' (1997)

"You know, I envy you. I wish I could go back and do it for the first time, all over again."

A mostly forgotten entry from that surge of high-concept thrillers in the 90s, 'The Game' is perhaps Fincher's most awkward film. A seemingly endless series of puzzles, it has Fincher finding his footing with what kind of filmmaker he wants to be after the jaw-dropping success of 'Se7en'. 'The Game' is an intriguing, very entertaining film, but it's also a surprisingly distant one. This isn't a slight on any of the work being done - Michael Douglas is terrific as reclusive millionaire Nicholas Van Orton who gets pulled into an all-encompassing recreational game that may or may not be real, and Fincher is certainly directing the hell out of it.

The problem is, once again, the screenplay, which presents the option of a deeper, more emotional subtext but never gives it the complexity it needs to surface. I've always had a strange relationship with 'The Game' - I often find myself forgetting the many mechanisms of the story, even though I've seen it many times. I used to find that intriguing, but now think it is indicative of a film that doesn't really work. In the end, I don't really know what it has to say, and I suspect that Fincher didn't know either. What makes the film fascinating is that it's so clear he's trying to find it. Perhaps it's Nicholas' refusal to be a part of the world or participate in it, take responsibility for his place and what he does with it? That certainly speaks to the films that followed, but here the landing doesn't quite stick.

Click here to read our full retrospective review of 'The Game'.

8
'PANIC ROOM' (2002)

"Get the fuck out of my house!"

Okay, from here on in, every film is a stone-cold classic. There's going to be a lot of hyperbole.

'Panic Room' was the greatest surprise to come from rewatching Fincher's film. I'd always just thought of it as a really entertaining film; the truth is, 'Panic Room' is an astounding film, one of the most purely entertaining white-knuckle thrillers of the past two decades. In lesser hands, it could have been just another of those "what would Hitchcock do with modern technology" films that's all about its craft, but Fincher is pedantic about making sure the wild cinematic tricks he pulls (and they are wild) are all rooted in the characters and relationships.

We have Jodie Foster as one of his many great heroines, playing off a young and brilliant Kristen Stewart. Meg is a woman in a highly vulnerable position, trying to put her life back together and work out who she is and what her family is now, and the home invasion is the catalyst for her to take back control of her life in her two bloody hands, and prove to herself that she can be mother and protector. It also features another of the great Fincher tropes - that men are fundamentally awful and stupid, and what distinguishes the good (Forrest Whitaker) from the bad (Dwight Yoakam) from the imbecilic (Jared Leto) are their principles.

'Panic Room' is one breathless, exhilarating set piece that never stops to take air, an ecstatic symphony of tension, and maybe the clearest example of Fincher's indelible ability to marry technology and storytelling where the former - as skilled as it is - must always support the latter.

7
'THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON' (2008)

"Benjamin, we're meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?"

'Benjamin Button' is often discussed dismissively, as overly sentimental and a misjudged anomaly in Fincher's career. I completely disagree; this might be the clearest example of exactly what is at the heart of his work, and is so deeply soulful and melancholy to the point of being confronting. The story of Benjamin, a life lived in reverse, taps into the fundamental beauty and tragedy of human existence, the ticking clock of time running out within one's self, and the awareness of time running out for those we love. The miracle of Benjamin makes that ticking clock manifest, and the devastation of his relationship with Daisy is that they see in one another what they are losing with every passing moment.

'Benjamin Button' is a sentimental film, but what Fincher understands about sentimentality (something very few storytellers seem to grasp) is that it is about death, not life. It is about our relationship with our own mortality, and what we do with the time that we are gifted; the good we may do with it. Death looms so large over every frame of Benjamin Button, from the first shot of an ageing Daisy on her death bed, to the magnificent final shot of Mr Gateau's backwards clock immersed in the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. It's complex because life and death are complex. It's long because you cannot fully comprehend the fullness of a life lived without taking in the quiet moments as well as the loud. It's heartfelt because every moment we are alive matters, and how we use each moment even more. This is why this is absolutely a David Fincher film, one so close to being a masterpiece that it aches to think it doesn't quite get there.

It reveals what the darkness and grunge hides in his films - that Fincher is a soulful, deeply emotional filmmaker - and in that sense, 'Benjamin Button' feels more personal than any of his other films. He isn't looking at the world around him for this one, he's looking into himself - what he has lost, what he has gained, those he has around him, what it means to be a lover and a parent and a child, and in the process, he delivered one of the greatest films ever made about the act of being alive.

6
'THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO' (2011)

"I want you to help me catch a killer of women."

In the making-of material for 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo', David Fincher says, with the cheekiest of smiles, "I think people are perverts. I've maintained that. That's the foundation of my career." It's a wickedly funny quip, but it's also a perfect statement of intent for this delicious, insane marvel of a film. Rather than falling into step by treating Stieg Larsson's beloved novel as high literature, Fincher had the audacity to call it out for what it is - a pulp detective thriller filled with violence, sex, deception, sadism and Nazis. The pulse of this film is pure punk, a living, breathing embodiment of Lisbeth's t-shirt slogan "Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck", but that Fuck You attitude is a path to something more profound and unsettling.

This film exists almost entirely in the greys of morality. Not a single character is without fault of some kind, not even the snow-covered country they live in, and what Fincher dares to do is peel back the skin and show that inside every home is some form of infection. The only question is whether that infection is too small to ignore, or too gangrenous not to cut out. It's also Fincher's nastiest film, featuring probably the most upsetting moment in any of his films. Lisbeth's assault is horrific, and the film makes it abundantly clear that the only appropriate way to view it is as a horrific, inhuman act. There's no pleasure in it, and it knows how deeply uncomfortable it is to watch. The horror is on Lisbeth's face, her screams, her anguish. Fincher knows that if he must include this moment (and fans of the book would have crucified him if he didn't), he must do so with his humanity directed entirely at Lisbeth. He balances it with Lisbeth's retribution, more visually graphic but driven by the fury born in how emotionally upsetting her assault is. And then you have Fincher having a damn good time, never clearer than the sight of Stellan Skarsgård popping on Enya's 'Orinoca Flow' while he prepares to gut Daniel Craig alive.

'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo' is an epic adult thriller of the highest order, one of the finest in the genre, an operatic and preposterous and furious portrait of finding the good in a world inherently poisoned. The greatest tragedy in David Fincher's career is that he was never allowed to complete the trilogy.

Click here to read our full theatrical review of 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'.

5
'GONE GIRL' (2014)

"What have we done to each other?"

Once again, Fincher took on a popular novel and, with its writer Gillian Flynn on board as screenwriter, crafted a damning portrait of the institution of marriage and of American suburbia. 'Gone Girl' is a shockingly funny film, so much so that it's almost a comedy, but it's also one of Fincher's most unsettling.

It's a series of conundrums that challenge our preconceptions of the Good Husband and the Troubled Wife, and the careful casting alone makes it clear that he doesn't want to make unravelling this one any easier for us. The obvious way to approach it would be to take a side, to try and piece behaviour together to explain what motivates these two detestable human beings - but with every subsequent rewatch, I find new details that confirm some answers and create more questions. It's not even clear who the "hero" actually is, but maybe that's the red herring. Perhaps both Amy and Nick are the villains, both in their own stories and in the one they inhabit together, tearing each other apart regardless of those they take down with them.

'Gone Girl' is a story set in Purgatory, a nightmare masquerading as a catalogue for the perfect American life, where the only way to survive is total possession. It's also a fascinating counterpoint to 'Dragon Tattoo' - where those characters were forced to suffer in silence and isolation, in 'Gone Girl', suffering is a spectator's sport, where the rabid, bloodthirsty crowd fall over themselves for any fetid scrap they can feed on. For Nick, this is a reminder of what an inadequate and pathetic man he is. For Amy, this is the path to her success and the weapon with which she can cut him down at the knees. And in its final moments, that uneasy fade to credits, Fincher leaves us gleefully unsatisfied and wickedly unsettled.

In an easier film, in a fiction, the wicked would pay the price. Hell, we'd know who the wicked actually were. But that's not the way the world works. Instead, these two terrible human beings are exactly where they belong: trapped together in the cosy hell they have built for themselves.

Click here to read our full theatrical review of 'Gone Girl'.

4
'FIGHT CLUB' (1999)

"Every evening I died, and every evening I was born again, resurrected."

We've now come to the four films I consider Fincher's masterpieces, films that exemplify everything that makes him such an extraordinary filmmaker. The hyperbole is about to go through the roof.

'Fight Club' is the battleground film in Fincher's filmography, one claimed as an ur-text by the very people it satirises, and damned by those who don't connect with its satire or despise those that have claimed it. This speaks to what a dense, complex film 'Fight Club' is. On one level, it's a maniacal, monstrous, magical comic masterpiece, a film that pokes fun at the dumb fairytale of fragile masculinity and all its bizarre rituals and self-justifications. One another, 'Fight Club' is a nightmare, a horrifying vision of what might happen if that fragile masculinity were weaponised against the world it thinks has wronged it. Fincher's initial approach is irreverence, an almost Looney Tunes freneticism that gives us permission to laugh, at Ikea catalogues and bags of rich peoples' fat and dicks cut into 'Bambi, but also a small window into the tricky headspace of our Narrator. Weirdly, it all makes sense. There's a romanticism to the idea of the fight clubs, to lay yourself bare and primal, to connect with the body and abandon the mind, to submit to the chaos of the universe. And then, with meticulous skill, we move from participants in this theatrical ritual of masculinity into witnesses of a dangerous, emotionally driven performance of destruction. Watching 'Fight Club' in 2020 gives it an added sense of horror - what Fincher was warning us was what might happen if the delicate male malcontents were placed in the hands of a madman, and the destruction they could enact. In 1999, this was palpable a vision of a potential future after the displacement of the 90's. It emerged in the wake of Columbine, that decisive moment where America had the nightmare of young masculine fury thrown in its face. In the 20 years since, that vision became a reality, where those in power have harnessed the raw anger of fragile masculinity into an army of hate and chaos, determined to reclaim the world as a vision of male power and idolatry. Fincher may begin by laughing at these pathetic men, and then elevate them to gods as skin, muscle and bone collide with fists and concrete, but in the end, they fully form as monsters, and Fincher can't contain how terrified of them he is. 'Fight Club' may have felt cool as hell at the time, with its nihilistic attitude and music video aesthetic, but it has emerged over time as a prescient, powerful and magnificent work on just how damaging a force in this world masculinity can be.

3
'SE7EN' (1995)

"People will barely be able to comprehend it, but they won't be able to deny it."

Even after 25 years and eight subsequent films, 'Se7en' is still David Fincher's darkest film, and still one of his finest. There's something deeply mythical about it, something haunting and eternal; a police procedural that reaches towards the unknowable and incomprehensible darkness of the human soul. It's a slow descent into hell, with two good men gripping onto any life line they can find with any strength they have, their eyes fixed on the light of heaven lest they get consumed by the abyss. Each of John Doe's murders is a black opera, a moment of Goya-esque insanity that brands itself on your memory, visions of just how incomprehensible we human beings can be, and have always been.

The horror of 'Se7en' is in what John Doe says to Somerset and Mills on their way to the cataclysmic finale - that we see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. The violent acts committed in the film highlight what is already there and what we try not to see, the gestures of cruelty that define so many of our interactions with one another. The soul of 'Se7en' - perhaps the most soulful film Fincher has ever made - is how we choose to respond to that cruelty, whether to embrace it or fight it. Mills is new to the fight, blinded by a youthful conviction that ultimately betrays him. Tracy grapples with the most devastating conflict of the film, how on earth you to bring a child into a world like this. John Doe sees himself as prophet and saviour, the one to bring this world of sin into the light through a baptism of theirs and his own blood. And Somerset, exhausted from the endless battle to do good in a world he suspects does not deserve his exhaustion, ultimately submits to that endlessness.

'Se7en' is a magnificent, devastating and ultimately hopeful film - hopeful in the knowledge that as dark as life itself can get, it survives because good people will it to. Fincher guides our eyes to stare into the abyss, but even in the catastrophe of those final moments, he never lets go of our hands.

Click here to read our full retrospective review of 'SE7EN'.

2
'THE SOCIAL NETWORK' (2010)

"The internet's not written in pencil, Mark. It's written in ink."

'The Social Network' might be the defining film of the 21st century. This has nothing to do with Facebook and its impact on the modern world; the social network of the title is nothing more than a catalyst for the Shakespearean tragedy that takes place in its wake. This is the film that captures the moment when who we are as a species changed, when human connections fractured and communication irrevocably shifted, when small men who sat in the basement of the world making the clocks tick and the machines run suddenly rose to take control of it. The story it tells is of our time and of all time, with characters that are deeply rooted in this century and yet centuries old; men seeking power and influence who are inadequate to wield it when they hold it in their hands. It's also a tragedy of friendships obliterated in the face of greed, battle lines drawn in the war for dominance, where the Davids fling their rocks at the Goliaths only to find themselves drenched in blood, staring at their own Davids as they prepare to hurl their rocks. It's the value of a human being, of possessing it and defining it, of collecting it as proof of your own superiority, a life reduced to data and numbers and a commodity. And it is a damning and dazzling portrait of the hubris of man, the neverending narrative of the insatiability of ambition and the casualties it leaves along the way, the humanity it strips from us, the loneliness and emptiness it sentences us to.

'The Social Network' is who we were, who we are and who we will become, a film of monumental, elemental power, the pulse of the universe as it throttles towards oblivion.

1
'ZODIAC' (2007)

"And man is the most dangerous animal of all?"

In the other films in his filmography, David Fincher explores morality and human nature within an artificial narrative, ones that emulate the real world but sit just to the side of it. Even 'The Social Network' is a true story reframed as a classical drama. 'Zodiac', his greatest film, is a film of absolute reality. It carries the questions that filter through all of his work, and layers them into a moment in history defined by an unsolvable riddle. Suddenly, how to be a good person in a world built for cruelty, what it means to be a man of conviction, how to protect yourself from the monsters in the dark, what legacy you leave behind... those questions are real, their weight heavy on our shoulders.

'Zodiac' is an enormous film, spanning decades in the lives of three men trying to make sense of something that doesn't make any sense at all, a figure of smoke whose very human existence makes its actions all the more puzzling. Horrors are not in dark alleyways or basements built for torture. They happen on bright sunny days and in taxis. The antagonist isn't the creature in the dark or the voice inside your head. It's someone unassuming you pass in the street; the neighbour, the man in the hardware store. Their master plan is not Biblical retribution or poetic revenge. It is nothing more than to be seen - for a fleeting second, for the world's eyes to be on them. The three men who hunt them - the detective, the reporter and the cartoonist - find themselves also desperate to be seen, to look into the eyes of evil and comprehend it, and for it to know that they see it for what it really is. They will do what good men are supposed to do. They will follow the clues, think outside the box, leave no stone unturned, and this will lead them to the answers they seek. But there's no party at the end, no sacrifice to make, no monster to vanquish, not even a head in a box. In the end, there is nothing.

The Zodiac is their world, and yet the mechanisms of the world itself move on regardless. There is no answer, no retribution, no victory, no acclaim. There is only the echo of the Zodiac speaking, fading further and further into the past and sinking deeper and deeper into their skin. In reality, there are no endings. We are pawns in the many chess games of history, and neither Robert Graysmith not Dave Tosci nor Paul Avery nor the Zodiac are the players, as much as they want to be. They and we are just the pieces. Listen to the lyrics on the radio as Darlene Ferrin and Mike Mageau sit in their cars in the middle of the night, as a dark car slowly approaches them.

"Histories of ages past
Hung in light and shadows cast
Down through all eternity
The crying of humanity
'Tis then when the hurdy-gurdy man
Comes singing songs of love."

We're in the reality of time and space now. And this code is too complex to crack. 'Zodiac' is David Fincher's masterpiece, his magnum opus, probably the best he will ever be. It's certainly inconceivable to imagine he could ever make anything better. It is, after all, one of the greatest films ever made.

So there you go, another "male film buff" has tried to rank and comprehend the work of David Fincher. I didn't even touch on his incredible collaborators, the people whose work has come to define what we understand as a "David Fincher film". No filmmaker works in a vacuum, and the great ones know how to bring out the best in those they work with. Fincher is only as good as he is because of the incredible artists he collaborates with, and in many ways, his awareness of that is further proof of his genius.

At the end of 'Se7en', we hear the voice of Detective Somerset. "Ernest Hemingway once wrote, 'The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part." Revisiting all of Fincher's films and falling even deeper in love with each of them, this quote kept ringing in my ears. For me, it encapsulates what is at the heart of all of Fincher's work, even into his television work - what we do with our time on this earth, and what we leave behind when we go. We can use it to do good and to make the world better, the way Somerset does, or Robert Graysmith, or Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blonkvist. We can simply try and survive, live our lives the best we can, or Ellen Ripley, or Meg Altman, or Benjamin and Daisy, or Marla Singer. We can live for our own self-interests, like Nicholas Van Orton, or Mark Zuckerberg, or Amy and Nick Dunne. Or we can seek to annihilate it and reshape it in our own image, like John Doe, or the Zodiac killer, or Tyler Durnan. What we do with our lives defines how we lived it, the "masterpiece" we leave behind, as John Doe puts it.

This struggle is what defines the work of David Fincher, the meaning of a life lived, in all its darkness and joy. That's why I return to his films again and again, why they inspire me and enthral me and horrify me and electrify me. It's not just the incredible craft or the wicked sense of humour or the complete creative control. In fact, they're just a means to an end. All of this is in service to grappling with the questions of who we are, who we were, and who might we become - the story we tell.

And that's why David Fincher is my favourite living filmmaker.

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