Posted on Wednesday, October 1st, 2014 by Russ Fischer
David Fincher began his directorial career making music videos for some of the biggest talents in pop music. Beginning with Alien³ in 1992, his work in features has combined a drive for technical achievement off-screen with a consistently recognizable interest in detail-oriented obsession on-screen. He is a consummate craftsman, but one with an uncanny ability to lay his finger right on the cultural pulse. Together, those talents result in films which have gone beyond reflecting cultural attitudes, to defining them.
With the release of his latest film, Gone Girl, we’ve taken the opportunity to revisit the director’s narrative works on film. (And, briefly, in television.) Below is a list of the films of David Fincher ranked by achievement. It’s a highly subjective effort, we realize. Where does Gone Girl fit in alongside Fight Club, Se7en, The Social Network, and Zodiac? What stands out as the best film in his career to date, and what virtues can we find even in his least successful efforts? As you’d expect with Fincher, the answer to that last question is a lot more detailed than it would be for many other filmmakers. Compare our list with your own after reading further.
11. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Scripted by Eric Roth, from a story by Roth and Robin Swicord, based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Shear this film of its wraparound story and it might rise one position in our estimation, but even then Benjamin Button would still be an emotionally stunted and distant tech demo. (Albeit one with a good sequence featuring Tilda Swinton.) Brad Pitt is poorly cast as the title character, and I can never shake the impression of Button as a dreamy Forrest Gump in which everything is even further detached from the audience. (Eric Roth scripted both films.) Ideally a mediation on the relationship between human life and time, Benjamin Button often simply feels lost.
As failed tech demos go, however, the film has legs. Fincher’s detail-obsessive CG established a benchmark for altering actors appearances. Mention that an actor has been given the “Ben Button” treatment, and any film-aware conversationalist will know exactly what you’re talking about.
10. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Scripted by Steven Zaillian based on the novel by Stieg Larsson
Fincher has an affinity for the thriller as a story construction that allows the particular tendencies of obsessive characters to fully flower, along with (at times) their destructive effects. It’s a place he returns to more than any other, with varying degrees of success. Dragon Tattoo is a smartly-cast and gorgeously chilly vision of that concept, but also one that fails to become anything more significant.
The film is bound to the source text more tightly than Lisbeth Salander ties her tormenter, and even the its particular procedural interests can’t give it either a life or identity of its own. Despite a deep and vicious crime-scene photo appeal, this adaptation rarely feels alive, and struggles to invigorate the audience. By focusing on the investigative aspects of the plot Fincher finds a way in to the story, but he never really finds a path back out again. When the procedural wraps up the spirit of the movie withers.
Scripted by David Giler & Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson (heavily revised by David Fincher), Story by Vincent Ward
Fans of Aliens can rightfully spear this third film for its opening scene, which ruthlessly undermines the entire emotional arc of the second film. But credit Alien³ for daring to do something different, and for an adherence to concept and theme. The rocky process of scripting the film led to a “finished” story in which beats added for broad audience appeal sit poorly with the continued development of Ripley’s story. And yet Ripley’s evolving understanding of the chain of events that includes her life, the xenomorph, and the company still has the power to affect audiences.
The longer “assembly cut” first released on DVD in 2003, presented without the supervision of David Fincher, fixes some of the problems in the theatrical cut, but cannot be considered a director’s cut. From development to production and release, Alien³ is a significantly compromised film and a cautionary tale about the relationship between an individual and the company that backs and/or controls them. What an apt situation, given the arc of Ripley’s story. And yet Fincher’s visual and narrative approach gives Alien³ a unique personality. Here, a first-time feature director created images and situations that have the strength to stand up to iconic genre concepts from Ridley Scott and James Cameron. If that’s “failure,” we should all fail so hard.
8. The Game
Scripted by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris
Fincher rose to the top of the directorial game in part because he can tap into very current emotional currents, and use them to power films that don’t feel terribly dated to any particular era. The Game is an exception; despite a thorny and nuanced central performance from Michael Douglas, this picture feels very much like a product of its time. At the time Fincher’s most personal picture to date, The Game is at its best when lingering on the small details of Douglas’ obsessive character. It also sings when building upon the rich atmospheric detail that previously made Se7en so striking, but The Game deflates in the end.
In Fincher’s run of thrillers, The Game is distinguished particularly by its cinematography. Here Fincher solidified a working relationship with Harris Savides, who would go on to lens Zodiac. As our praise of the film’s detailed vision of San Francisco suggests, their collaboration was fruitful from the outset. Here Fincher’s signature aesthetic really started to develop in a way that would pay off significantly in future films.
After the jump we continue our ranking of David Fincher’s filmography.