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Great Directors: David Fincher

The second entry in my Great Directors series profiles David Fincher, director of Se7en and Fight Club, among others.  David Fincher’s directorial style seems to always incorporate novel approaches to film-making. When a film’s plot requires a gritty, realistic, but depressing feeling to it Fincher is able to deliver all of that with his directorial skill, as he had to do in making Se7en.   He is similar to Jean-Pierre Jeunet in his command of the visual elements and editing of a film to achieve his goals, but Fincher’s movies are far different than Jeunet’s.

David Fincher was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1962, but was raised in California.  He began his directing career with commercials which moved on to music videos, to short film submissions and finally to feature-length films, though he still does some work with music videos on occasion.  During the making of Fight Club, he and Kevin Haug created a distinctive new filming technique called fluid tracking which can be accessed anywhere and allows for the dramatic scenes in Fight Club and in Panic Room of fluid shots through floors and out of trash cans smoothly so they appear natural and add to the movie rather than distract  from it.  His inspiration for a career in film-making was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Fincher’s films have been predominantly some of the better movies to come out in the last fifteen years or so.  While The Zodiac was well-done, it was disappointing for its lack of novel approaches to filming and lesser focus on visual effects to achieve goals and enhance the plot of his films.  I consider Se7en and Fight Club each to be an all-time favorites movies of mine.  I have mixed feelings about the rest of the pack, but all are good in certain aspects.  What limits them from the kind of consideration given to Fight Club and Se7en is their lack of innovation, directorial risk, and what seems to be too much compromise in editing the screenplay and final movie.  I’ll leave it there and move onto the movies themselves.

The List:

(These are presented ranked in order of their overall quality in my opinion.)

Se7en (1995) — In my opinion Se7en is easily one of the forty best movies ever made.  It is cast with fantastic actors like Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow, Morgan Freeman, and Brad Pitt, each portraying their well-developed characters in a manner that should have put them all into consideration for major awards.  The visual effects are haunting and make for a dark look at an American city through the eyes of police detectives working to solve gruesome serial killings themed around the seven deadly sins.  With constant rain in each scene of the movie and a solemn, dreary feeling to the scenes Pitt and Freeman in playing their pair of detectives contrast greatly with one a young, impetuous, inexperienced man trying to do his best work, and the other a wise, old detective, experienced in the investigation of what humanity is capable of doing, respectively.

The scenes of the murders and ingenuity of the plot are haunting in their realism and shocking blatantness, but are indispensible for properly portraying Kevin Spacey’s serial-killing character.  The plot is intricate, the screenplay is well-written, the characters are well-developed, the visual effects are astounding and help the movie along.  This is definitely one of Fincher’s great films.

Fight Club (1999) — Fight Club is a cult-favorite both in its cinematic adaption and in its novel form as written by Chuck Palahniuk.  The film adaption employs Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Meat Loaf, and Helena Bonham Carter to bring Palahniuk’s novel to life.  Brad Pitt is reported to have exclaimed to Palahniuk on the set, “Thank you for the best part of my life!”

The story revolves around an unnamed narrator who has become bored with his middle-class lifestyle in which he is employed by an automobile manufacturer to investigate accidents to determine whether it will cost the manufacturer more to settle claims on automotive defects or initiate a recall of all of the products. He is an insomniac who craves Ikea products and other catalog-order items to decorate his condo and spends his time cleaning and traveling.  When he meets Tyler Durden (Pitt) he finds new methods of dealing with, and living, life.  The two set off on an adventure to masculinize their lives as a reaction against the feminization of men in America and try to remake society in a manner they believe will free the masses to better, more natural lives.

The visual effects are astoundingly well-done.  The very introduction to the film is a shot zooming out from a single firing neuron in the brain through the brain’s fear centers, through the skull and tissue, onto the skin, and then up the barrel of what is ultimately see to be a gun held in the narrator’s mouth.  Other instances of this fluid camera tracking take place throughout the film and another instance, roughly a third of the way through the movie is a camera tracking out of an office trashcan filled with consumer garbage with items appearing similar to planets and galaxies in space travel.

The Game (1997) — The Game slipped under the radars of many appreciators of movies.  It is a very good thriller from Fincher in which Nicolas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), a propserous San Fransisco investment banker receives a gift from his screw-up brother Conrad Van Orton (Sean Penn) along with generic instructions to call a number listed for more information.  What follows is a twisting storyline that weaves very delicate plot layers into a complex and thoroughly enjoyable web.  Nicolas must find out the meaning of the game in order for it to end.  He attempts to continue his life with the nearest thing he has to a friend in his attorney Sam Sutherland (played by Peter Donat), but is unable to do so and is pushed by events orchestrated by this game into an ending that was a definite surprise for me–though with so many twists I had actually stopped even trying to guess what was going on.

The visual style and effects in this movie are a bit understated when compared to Fight Club, Panic Room, and Se7en but they are present in just the right amounts where they accentuate the story-telling and plot without becoming a distraction because of overuse or because of absence.  In many ways this is a classic retelling the story of a very wealthy man whose life has no other purpose than the acquisition of wealth who is shown that there is more to life than work, including family, friends, and fun.  It is especially enjoyable upon the first viewing while all of the surprises are still a mystery, but it also works on repeat viewings.  A great, great movie.

The Zodiac (2007) — One of the most recent pictures of this director was The Zodiac; a retelling of the true story of the serial killer who terrorized California during the 1960s and 1970s and whose identity was never determined.  Fincher models the telling of this tale through the lens of a political cartoonist working for a local newspaper (Jake Gyllenaal as Robert Graysmith) who is attempting to do some investigative journalism with the help of a more seasoned news veteran in Paul Avery as played by Robert Downey, Jr.

Even when the police lose interest in the case eventually, Robert Graysmith remains interested and mounts a private investigation that costs him much of his personal life in family and friends due to his almost obsessive fixation with determining the identity of the killer.  While the film’s plot drags a bit, with the amount of time it is attempting to portray in a feature-length window, unless it deviates significantly from the true-life story, that drag can’t be helped or avoided.  Fincher seems to do the best he can to tell the story, but seems to produce something that’s much more confused than his other work and as such comes across as more of a generic thriller whose best marketing feature is that it’s based upon a true story.  As a fan of David Fincher’s work I am quite hopeful that this was just a weird entry in his career and he will be back to making very good movies quite soon.

Alien 3 (1992) — One of the earlier works in Fincher’s videography is that of directing the sequel to Alien and Aliens in Alien 3.  In a very strange coincidence, the other director whose work I greatly appreciate, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, directed the follow-up to Alien 3 in Alien: Resurrection.  That’s immaterial, but a rather interesting coincidence given both directors’ strong commitment to visual effects as a means of enhancing their stories.

In this movie Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) sees her ship crash onto a planet that is a designated penal colony, sort of like a planetary Australia under British imperial rule. She contacts her company for transport off of the planet, but while she is waiting she is presented with familiar enemies like a new iteration of Bishop played by Lance Henriksen and when the prisoners begin to die in the same way that she has seen people die in the past, she discerns the presence of at least one alien creature in the facility and is called upon again to do battle and save those she can from the infestation by doing battle with a queen alien.  It is a very good thriller and fans of Alien and Aliens will almost certainly like this installment and for the rest of us it is a good, fun movie with which to kick back and relax.

Panic Room (2002) —  Okay, Panic Room is a point of argument among my friends as to how well-done it is.  One opinion runs that it is a shallow thriller with a predictable plotline and filled with many of the special effect techniques that were both necessary and complementary to Fight Club.  The other opinion states that the entire movie is meant to be a Freudian look at Meg Altman (as played by Jodie Foster) mentally during a dream sequence and that her daughter Sarah’s (Kristen Stewart) presence, along with those of the three burglars represents various elements of her psyche.  The people voicing this opinion tend to believe that the trio of robbers comprised of Junior (Jared Leto), a relative of the previous and now deceased owner of Meg Altman’s home, Burnham (Forest Whittaker), a good guy who has been caught up in a bad situation and normally protects people by designing these panic rooms, exactly like the kind of present in the Altman home; finally there is Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), a local bus driver brought into the scheme by Junior without notifying Burnham who proves to be the most unpleasant and frightening of the three.

My opinion tends toward the former opinion of the movie as being a vapid premise.  It’s certainly not that I don’t appreciate densely layered, confusing, or even Dada kinds of films; I am a big fan of David Lynch at his weirdest.  More to the point I think that the premise that’s foisted onto Panic Room as a very deep look at a dream or other internally imagined event with these characters representing various parts of a person’s pscyhe seems just too forced.  It is extremely difficult to effectively produce a metaphorical film of any quality that is not readily apparent to be multifacted.  Panic Room is just a lukewarm thriller that’s a decent movie to watch, but just not a title I think David Fincher should be terribly proud of having produced.

Again, my thanks to the following resources for fact-checking and details: Amazon.com, IMDb.com