Updated: Apr 14
The master of building up the tension amazes us with originality in each of his films with a committed penchant for the dark atmosphere. He loves to “play” with his audience in a brutal way, keeping them in suspense until the last minute, allowing them to analyse and reflect on his craft. One of the best American directors - David Fincher was born on 28th of August 1962 in Colorado. Known from films such as Seven (1995), The Game (1997), Fight Club (1999), and Zodiac (2007). He was nominated twenty-six times for the best director (Academy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, Satellite Awards, The Palms) and National Board of Review in the same category.
Since he was eighteen years old he was interested in films and art. In 1980 Fincher started working as an animator in Industrial Light & Magic company, where he met many famous film-makers and acquired useful abilities, which came handy in the process of creating his films, later. After a couple of years, he left the motion picture company in order to hone his skills apart from visual effects. He began working in the commercials industry, directing popular advertisements from the 80s and 90s. He was cooperating with reputed brands such as Pepsi, and Nike. Alongside, he was also collaborating with singers, such as Madonna, directing music videos for her songs (Vogue, Express Yourself). The experience he gained while working in commercials and music industry can be later seen in his film-making technique. Fincher’s film intros are mounted perfectly with background music, aesthetically and visually pleasing that it could be music videos by itself.
David Fincher at the beginning of his film-making career proved that he works the best in neo-noir film atmosphere, the type that uses many elements from film-noir adding new, not-present-before motifs (visual elements, mass media, and new theme schemes). Films that usually diverge from a classical division of god and bad, and its main theme surrounding perversions and scandals, which remains unsolved for a long time. One of the most characteristic elements of noir films is their gloomy and dark atmosphere, operating with dark shades of lighting, and shady abandoned cities as a main location for the plot.
The American director very often dodges happy endings, because they’re not thought-provoking and do not evoke reflective thoughts in the viewers.
“Some people go to the movies to be reminded that everything’s OK. I don’t make those kinds of movies. That, to me, is a lie. Everything is not OK.”
~ David Fincher (1999)
His body of work screams a characteristic tenebrous and thrilling vibe, which is achieved by very strong colour contrasts and playing with shadows visuals. Typical Fincher’s heroes are men drawn to harsh intrigues, unresolved mysteries and perversions. The director is very precise when it comes to the choice of fitting scenery for his film, which aptly brings out the atmosphere of his creation. Most of his stories take place in gloomy and unfriendly towns, where citizens come across various drastic events every day. His films were interpreted and analyzed in many ways, of which shocking and thought-provoking are comments one will come across easily. Nevertheless, his body of work definitely is not for every cinema-goer, although many say it was already welcomed and labelled as classics of the thriller genre.
Fincher’s characters are usually detectives, investigators, which is reflected in his detailed compositions. All of his shots are very precise. The director uses special effects in order to make his movies feel more realistic or keeping the right continuity. Fincher is known for hijacking his viewers’ eyes with camera movements. He uses camera tilt, pan and tracking shots that perfectly match the movements of the characters. Fincher locks viewers inside the behaviour of his characters by the use of this technique, which allows them to pay attention to the character’s state of mind. This interesting technique shows how he is obsessed with the behaviour and movement of his actors because he believes that movement offers a true insight into their emotions.
His film-making adventure started with a horror flick. In 1992 Fincher released his first full-length film - Alien 3, which referenced more to the first part of the franchise directed by Ridley Scott. Fincher patterned himself on his antecedent and was not interested in scaring a viewer with jumpscares. By leisurely building up a thrilling atmosphere, he achieves leaving the audience with uncomfortable tension till the last minute of the film. The American director introduced his own version of a well-known alien, which was rarely visible on the screen. This allowed the viewer to become more imaginative and reflective while waiting for the main monster to emerge, which added to the suspense during the screening. Most of the fans of the original series were disappointed after the show, maybe because they were expecting a conventional horror film like the previous instalments. One year later, the director participated in an hour-long interview for Mark Burman, during which he tried to make the image of his body of work. After an unsuccessful attempt, Fincher admitted that the major reason for the film's failure was the producer and that he does not want to be associated with his first film at all. Nevertheless, Alien 3 is still considered by many of the critics and genre connoisseurs as one of the best parts of the whole franchise.
After his first endeavour in the film industry, Fincher returned to his safety zone, commercials and music industry. During the directing of the music video for Sting’s Englishman in New York, a new script for a thriller reached his hands. Despite his uncertainty as an effect of the first attempt, Fincher decided to give the film industry another chance. As it later appeared, it was one of the most influential decisions of his career. The script grabbed the attention of the director, because of its dramatic and thrilling theme, which he values the most in a film. This movie opened new doors to his film-making success and created an opinion about his craft amidst stalwarts in the industry.
Seven (1995) was a film that fully introduced the typical dark atmosphere of Fincher’s body of work. In a nameless, grim town, two main characters (aspiring, young detective Mills with experienced, adamant, and strong-minded detective Somerset) are investigating a serial killer that is murdering his victims according to one specific key. The film presents Fincher’s fondness and experience in the field of music, which appears in his editing technique and opening intro. Director’s attention to details mixed with his tendency to startle the viewer is already visible in the beginning. The short intro perfectly informs the audience about the atmosphere of the whole movie by introducing a disturbing song by Nine Inch Nails. Moreover, it contains the solution to the entire plot of the film. The audience realises only at the end that the whole solution was already spoiled to them in the intro. Fincher plays around with the recurring motif of number seven - seven days, seven crimes, and the detectives’ first conversation takes place around blocks with numbers starting with seven. Name and surname of the actor playing the main antagonist did not appear on the posters, opening credits, or DVD covers, just to guard the element of surprise in the finale. During the first six days of the film plot, it rains heavily. Only on Saturday (seventh day), the sun comes up, which teases a happy ending. As befits Fincher, we are introduced to one of the most thrilling finales in film history, leaving the viewer with a thought-provoking message. Fincher rarely uses close-ups, he adapts them as a tool to gain the attention of his viewer, only when it’s important and needed. In the last scene of Seven, the camera is hand-held when presenting the detectives, but static when showing the murderer has an advantage in the ongoing situation. David Fincher made Seven with his own characteristic style and after which he was directing every two years, each of his films is a game between him and his viewers.
The Game (1997), slightly reminding us of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), engages the viewer in first-person adventure-like gameplay, while the controller is safely in the capable hands of Fincher. Through the perspective of Nicholas Van Orton, Fincher immerses the viewer inside of his crude, seemingly dangerous and apparently immutable game, making the audience empathize with the protagonist. The obscurity of the agent behind the mishaps is almost ominous in its presence. Through a detailed and elaborate con that unfolds in the film, Fincher eventually pulls one on the audience too and this time giving them the happy ending that they’ve been yearning for.
The director’s characteristic style and the atmosphere are also present in Fight Club (1999) - an innovative thriller with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. The director mixes an ironic vision of the modern world with dark humour while telling the story of a man suffering from insomnia. The main character can’t tell the difference between what’s real and imaginary. Under these circumstances, he meets Tyler Durden - a man that quickly turns out to be an ideal partner for Norton’s character. In Fight Club, Fincher uses a technique that was banned in the commercial industry, where the viewer’s brain catches the image and remembers it without even realising. Tyler Durden is introduced to the audience before his official appearance by using his image four times for split-second throughout the plot. This is a piece of direct information for the viewer that Tyler Durden might have more similarities with the main character then we have primarily thought.
The Panic Room (2002), where he toys with the classical sub-genre of thriller, chamber play. With Jodie Foster playing the lead and his camera ever more intimate and up-close to an actor in all of his filmmaking years. With an eerie atmosphere of genre trope of home-invasion, though perfected by Michael Haneke in his Funny Games (1997), Fincher’s attempt is definitely a tough contender in the list. The stunning tracking shot establishing a sleeping Jodie Foster and to the blurry images of thieves trying to break-in is an eye-pleasing wonder. Although this is just an example of his many blocks that he has auteuristically conceived. The shot, informing the viewer about the sequence of the whole bomb blast in main character’s apartment in Fight Club also shares similar visual effects marvel and his ability to use VFX as a storytelling technique rather than just an eye-pleasing endeavour.
Zodiac (2007), not exactly a remake but more of a proper attempt to a based-on-true-events story, allows Fincher to indulge in a character study whose sudden obsession eventually takes over his life. This film also falls into Fincher’s pattern of alternative viewpoints, where he totally shadow-plays the killer part and gets back to his favourite process of following an investigator’s psyche and his metamorphosis into a preoccupied individual who inevitably severs ties with people around him. Nolan’s Following (1998), Aronofsky's Pi (1998), Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) and Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983) all these movies deal with the same theme, but what Zodiac stands out in achieving is the deliberate use of single-dimensional narrative (as opposed to a surrealistic approach present in all of the above-mentioned films) to the point that audience also indulge in the obsession of protagonist and are directed to feel the catharsis with the character (Jake Gyllenhaal) at the end of the movie. The convenient use of symbolism adds a layer to the film, given the true utilisation of the Omega logo in the crimes by the killer in real life.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), the only film where he steps outside of his world of dark themes and murky undertones. Time and space as a factor and its importance are reassured in the film with the use of ‘butterfly effect’ sequence. The protagonist’s unique ageing process gave the scope for Fincher to explore a relationship drama between two antithetic characters that are being haunted by time. Still employing his signature storytelling tools, Fincher manages to pull off a movie with an unusual (considering his filmography) emotional curve.
The Social Network (2010) the Zuckerberg biopic, not much like Zodiac, follows characters with different shades. A cinephile would immediately draw parallels to the character Daniel Plainview, played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis in the arguably best film of the decade Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007). Stealing ideas from friends and in the process alienating them is eloquently told by a non-linear narrative with a base plot as a legal negotiation/deposition session. He leaves the American-excess part of the story to other filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, but as always follows the characters’ transformation with a sequence of carefully hand-picked events from the protagonist’s life. In this film, Fincher’s inquisitive approach to characters’ true motives and intentions give a lot of scope for Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield (Eduardo Saverin being his breakout performance) to express their acting chops. Fincher explores the themes of obsession and irreverence by factoring in the controversies that the characters are surrounded by and poses the audience with the big question “was all of that even worth it?”.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) adapted from the bestselling Millenium trilogy by Stieg Larsson, Fincher’s first stab at a Swedish crime thriller is a visual treat. Like Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance trilogy (especially Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)) and Lars Von Trier’s Depression trilogy (specifically Antichrist (2009)) this movie shares similar themes and vignettes but differs in the rhythm of execution. The steely cold-blue colour palette fits perfectly into his vision for the film. Starting from the glitch-rock cover of Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin intro, which as usual gives away the whole premise of the film (laptop keyboard, dragon, Blomkvist’s smother attempt, foreshadowing the ending with contrasting crimson fire and also a perfect description of Lisbeth Salander's character). He’s in luck as the material already contains deranged characters, obsessive behaviour, flawed investigators and an eerie backdrop as a playfield. His control over his techniques, be it meticulously following movements or his precise rhythmic editing are at play, multiple times in this film. The portrayal of the relationship between Blomkvist and Salander is set amidst the hunt for a killer and the process of investigation itself. Fincher’s one foot out the door approach to this relationship does justice to the novel and provides space for upcoming adaptations. The rising tension in the film, sophistication and white-knuckling, allows the viewer to be immersed into the cold and brutal mystery.
Gone Girl (2014) his last full-length drama, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel also is an investigative drama, where the characters hold similar traits to his other films. Deranged characters, investigative tropes and dark undertones repeat themselves in this film. Through and through, it’s just a repetition of all of his previous works. Speculated as just another Fincher film where he plays comfortably from his home-ground as he found a resonation in Flynn’s novel. A perfect outro in his filmography, after him claiming that he will be a taking a long hiatus before he comes back to full-length features.
Fincher broke into the television scene with Netflix’s House of Cards (2013), his take on a political espionage thriller that starts with the protagonist Frank Underwood, perfectly played by a talented Kevin Spacey, killing (putting it out of its misery) a dog struck by a car, definitively establishes the character. His take on breaking the fourth wall, invented by Woody Allen in his Annie Hall (1977), making the audience an accomplice in his conspiracies, fits perfectly to the lead character and the show itself. Ruthlessness, excess, irreverence, and obsession are recurring motifs in this show, just like his films.
Mindhunter (2017) is obviously a field day for Fincher, given it is based on real-life serial killers in America. He directed six episodes including the pilot, which opens with an aerial shot of a car making a turn and his camera exactly panning the same way. The gorgeous intro of the show with the sequence of Sony’s reel-to-reel recording equipment overlayed with parts of a murdered dead body falls very much into his signature. The intro is an abstract representation of human senses involved in a murder-investigation set piece. The show goes on to explore serial killers from the perspective of FBI profiling agents. Fincher’s adamant need for the actors playing the serial killers to mimic their real-life counterparts from video archives is rewarding in the screen.
Love, Death & Robots (2019): Fincher’s recent collaboration with Tim Miller, the director of Deadpool (2016), has turned out to be a black mark in his career. The idea to do an anthology of short-animations as an endeavour sounds amazing, but the execution of it is very scruffy to the point that critics and Fincher-fanatics have lost hope. This show involves the best of animators in the industry from around the world and gives short-animation writers a platform to use the best resources from a production giant like Netflix to put out exciting content. The high praises that were sung so far, gets seemingly overshadowed by this failed attempt. Love, Death & Robots is treated with the male gaze. With 18 different animation styles in each short, the character arch is just flat, emotionless and flavourless. The plot just seems like a filler for a beautiful background, with lifeless writing and a dead-pan commitment to a three-act structure, which does not seem to resemble Fincher’s signature, even remotely. It is just stunning visuals with no reflective content in writing. The show just screams revolutionary visuals with a look-what-I-have-done-here attitude, often grabbing the audience’s focus on visuals rather than complementing the written material. The camera movements that are present in his other films which expresses his obsession with behaviour are difficult to find in this show. This, to ardent Fincher fans, seems more of a lost opportunity than a letdown, as they are deprived of any sort of takeaway. At best we have introduced characters with unsubstantiated emotional rage or characters with alternative humour that does not even resonate. On the other hand, gamers and geeks are going gaga over this whole show and hailing it as one of all-time best. They are also praising Netflix for allegedly revolutionising the whole world of animation films/shows. The very fact that Fincher has attached his name to this project builds the hype around the show. For a Fincher fan, this watch-at-your-own-risk show is a sad lump in the throat.
“People are perverts, that’s the foundation of my career.”
- Fincher makes his viewers passive consumers who are engaged in his violent, gory, and thrilling stories.