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David Fincher’s Misdirections: The Movies Inside His Movies

Everyone thinks director David Fincher is a ghoulish control freak. But we know there’s more than meets the eye.

Inside every David Fincher work, there are dozens of little dalliances — illicit affairs, taking place just out of plain sight. The elevator pitches are tight — aging backward, founding Facebook, Zodiac killer, Swedish banking crime, seven deadly sins, don’t talk about Fight Club — and most of them will leave you wanting to jump right back down that elevator shaft. But look closely, and you will find the wonderful movements that make up Fincher’s various filmmaking symphonies — the buddy comedy inside Zodiac, the musical inside The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the campus comedy inside The Social Network, the slapstick farce inside Panic Room.

This all began after Fight Club, his scathing satire marketed as a bro bible. Or maybe it was a bro bible marketed as a satire. Maybe it started because Fincher never wanted his audiences to be confused again, but also didn’t want to sacrifice the little joys of filmmaking. So he began hiding those joys.

Fincher is renowned for his sumptuous compositions, his superhuman eye for detail, and his reputation for putting actors through endless, rigorous takes to strip them of earnestness and capture exactly the performance he seeks; his films can, at first glance, seem almost didactic, joyless, and severe. This is, after all, the man who sees Star Wars as “the story of two slaves.”

Fincher has a reputation for being uncompromising. He doesn’t sound … fun. Josh Brolin talks about working with Paul Thomas Anderson as being “absolute fucking chaos”; Quentin Tarantino writes tailor-made parts for his loyal company of actors and leads them in cheers on the set; Steven Soderbergh, a longtime Fincher pal, awakens the DIY spirit in his colleagues by working fast, cheap, and in control. But Fincher? Fincher will break you.

Here’s the problem with that narrative: It short-sells just how playful he can be.

With the release of his 10th feature, Gone Girl, we look at the ideas hidden inside the work David Fincher has made since the turn of the millennium.

The Slapstick Farce Inside Panic Room

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In the aftermath of Fincher’s twin triumphs, Se7en and Fight Club, Panic Room is like a riddle that a troll living under a bridge might ask you: Where is it safe but dangerous, full of love and surrounded by hate, confined but all-seeing? In Jodie Foster’s thief-proof steel cage, where this veiled feminist barn burner plays, is where. Think of the boxes men put women in, the way men simultaneously shield women from and threaten them with violence — that’s one way to look at this movie. There’s all kinds of weightiness to be drawn out of David Koepp’s script, which is an elaborate Hitchcock update — all high-concept execution and thin characterization. But letting Fincher and his roving camera slink in and out of rooms, around the bannisters of a stairwell, up and down a service elevator, makes for a technically miraculous achievement. And he has fun as his camera leers at a cell phone just out of reach under a bed, or tracks a swirling whirlwind of paper blowing in the night wind. There are greater visual crescendos in his filmography, but few accomplished in such confined space. It’s a fun movie, but rarely considered an important one. Minor Fincher.

Panic Room arrived with a great anticipation it could never live up to, but what it really signals is Fincher’s entreaty to the confines of the commercial. Fincher’s movies to this point were devilish entertainments, but they were no doubt twisted. Koepp — who also wrote Jurassic Park and Mission: Impossible — understands how to please audiences. Together, they made something that is a half of their wholes. Panic Room is gripping, grim, and strange at times, but it has a little pep in its perps. There’s nothing funny about home invasion, kidnapping, and murder, so this thriller with Swiss-watch plotting should not be the source of so much glee. And yet …

The Sequence

Fincher has taken great joy in destroying Jared Leto’s beautiful visage. Three years before Panic Room, he had Fight Club’s Ed Norton turn Jordan Catalano’s high cheekbones into decanned Alpo. For a period, Fincher liked to make Leto — heretofore glassy-eyed, disaffected, and impeccable — into a squirming, bratty pissant. Here Leto plays Junior, a rich crook out to rob his family of the inheritance they would otherwise split. It’s Junior’s plan to break into the new home of Meg Altman (Foster), where his deceased father’s fortune resides. Fincher immediately communicates that Junior is a twit. Big mouth, cornrows, and the What, me? whine of a fortunate son. He gets his comeuppance, and in perfectly Three Stooges–ian fashion.

Watch how Leto modulates his performance, all big eyes and exaggerated gestures.

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It’s like a series of Mel Brooks sight gags shot by Michael Bay.

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Just as Leto overplays the comedy, the drama ratchets up. Listen to the spare but booming score of this sequence. It’s life-or-death, as Foster’s character ignites the propane being funneled into the panic room. And then:

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Leto’s reaction, after literally turning a blue streak, is like Lou Costello meeting the Wolfman. Is Leto going too far? This isn’t a choice he made alone. Even David Fincher knows how funny it is watching Jared Leto burn. How many takes do you think this took?

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The Buddy Comedy Inside Zodiac

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The cruelest image in Zodiac — and remember, this is a movie where a long, static shot captures a picnicking couple being stabbed while tied up — is the time-lapse shot of San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid being erected, set to the sounds of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.”

It’s actually a kind of cruel joke:1 The world moves on, buildings — monuments to man’s ingenuity — go up, even while everything around you falls apart. The world does not care whether you caught the man in black.


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Fincher!

Paramount was hoping for Se7en, and Fincher came up with his “newspaper movie.” The studio more or less dumped it, giving it no awards push (“After all, these are the guys who were working Nacho Libre.” Fincher!), which is a shame, because it’s probably one of the five best films of the last 15 years. As a neo-noir, Zodiac has only Chinatown for competition. This is a movie about the destructive powers of obsession, about needing to know the unknowable, and the corrosive power of time. Instead of Grail Knights, Fincher has detectives and journalists, and he puts them on a quest that leads to nowhere.

It’s also a great buddy-cop movie.

Zodiac is rightfully celebrated for its attention to period detail, its re-creation of the bureaucratic nightmare that is the modern criminal justice system, and is notorious for the toll it took on its actors. The film was shot on digital, with endless takes and little need to break in between. This prompted Robert Downey Jr. to leave jars of urine around the set as an act of protest. (Stay strong, brother.) He would later say, of Fincher’s working style, “I just decided, aside from several times I wanted to garrote him, that I was going to give him what he wanted. I think I’m a perfect person to work for him, because I understand gulags.” Jake Gyllenhaal is still trying to put himself back together after playing code-breaking cartoonist Robert Graysmith.

Whatever trials the cast went through to make the film must have bonded them together. Few Fincher movies are about people hitting it off — if anything, vulnerability and connection are weaknesses in his universe. Just ask Morgan Freeman. Zodiac doesn’t exactly have a warm, gooey center. But it does understand friendship and how it can be both baptized and broken by labor. Maybe all that time in the gulag was worth it.

The Sequence

By the time Downey’s Paul Avery invites Graysmith to a local bar, Morti’s, there have already been several grisly murders, a couple of terrifying letters, and a possible appearance by a serial killer on a televised call-in show. I think everyone could use a drink.

What follows is one of the more charismatic exchanges in Fincherland. The domineering Avery, interrogating Graysmith

Avery: What do you do for fun?

Graysmith: I love to read. I enjoy books.

Avery: Those are the same things.

This scene is basically shot in the dark, and features two men, both on the way to being shitfaced — one eventually doing bumps in a booth — talking about the cryptographic curiosities of a murderer. And it’s the brightest moment in the film — a portrait of connection, of two like minds coming together, despite their constitutional differences.

There are two pairs in the center of Zodiac: the San Francisco Chronicle duo of Graysmith and Avery, and the police detectives Dave Toschi and Bill Armstrong, played by Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards. The former pair is an uneasy alliance, forged by a night of drinking Aqua Velvas …

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… and bonded through a shared obsession with discovering the Zodiac’s identity. The latter are friends, the way only people who spend most of their waking hours together working can be: They are more like a married couple, finishing one another’s sentences and providing much-needed boxes of animal crackers when necessary.

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Of course, everything ends, and that’s how you find yourself on a houseboat that doubles as a gin mill and triples as a pharmacy. Avery winds up on just such a boat …

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… and Armstrong leaves Toschi, opting to see his kids grow up rather than chase shadows. I suppose the tragedy at the heart of Zodiac is that all of this work went in and they never caught the real killer. But what happened to those who chased that killer, and their friendships, always seemed far sadder.

The Technicolor Musical Inside The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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The odd duck. That’s the best way to describe Fincher’s elongation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a man who ages backward. It is a long, languorous, ultimately soporific lunge for grace. It has no urgency, no verve, no edge. But for all of this movie’s problems — and they are myriad, from Brad Pitt’s casting to the dubious resemblance the script bears to Forrest Gump2 — there are still traces of fun.


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Also penned by Button’s screenwriter, Eric Roth.

Against the washed-out taupe, beige, and coffee-colored palette that Fincher uses to animate 1920s Louisiana, he splashes accents. They’re little grace notes, indications of a heart beating inside a corpse. Look at this:

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Fincher zeroes in on Pitt’s entrancing blue irises, drapes Taraji P. Henson in a garish pink coat, and fetishizes Cate Blanchett’s luminous imperial red hair. He looks hard for the little lights. They’re like desperate acts of rebellion in an otherwise conforming exercise. The movie says, “I’ll take that Oscar,” but these rogue shades say, “Sex, desire, weirdness — goddamnit, let me out of this prestige-movie coffin!”

The Sequence

In the movie’s most elegant sequence, a reunited Benjamin and Daisy (Blanchett) find themselves in a courtyard at dusk. And for a brief spell, lust takes over. Daisy, a dancer, seduces Benjamin with a series of balletic movements, her body a pencil and then a compass, limbs lifting up and down.

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It lasts only two minutes, and when it does end, Daisy goes in for the kill. If this were a Vincente Minnelli musical from the 1950s, like The Band Wagon or Brigadoon, it’s at this moment a frantic jazz number would break out, and Pitt would begin singing some veiled sexual innuendo about feeling “fresh.” Fincher — the man who taught Madonna to vogue, who went straight up with Paula Abdul, who let Christy Turlington vamp — inched right up to the face of his first full-blown musical. And then he pulled back.

The Campus Comedy Inside The Social Network

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Life moves pretty fast in this movie, and if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss something. The Social Network is told by unreliable narrators, speaking at a series of overlapping lawsuit depositions, in the dense languages of legalese and tech jargon. The villain of the story is played, at one point or another, by almost all of its heroes, and midway through the film, the role of protagonist actually switches, from Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg to Andrew Garfield’s Eduardo Saverin. It’s no longer a story about the defendant, it’s a story about the plaintiff.

In retrospect, all this sleight of hand was probably confusing for viewers. Fincher didn’t provide a user’s manual, and that left the film up to a variety of interpretations. The Social Network was criticized upon its release for the creative liberties it took in its rendering of recent history. Much of this criticism was laid at the feet of Aaron Sorkin, who penned the semiautomatic dialogue. Sorkin would go on to straight up treat history like a prop with The Newsroom, so it’s no surprise he allegedly played fast and loose with some characterizations, placing a disproportionate amount of importance on power, old money, tradition, and the anxiety of acceptance. Sorkin’s fictional Harvard features moments possibly fashioned out of whole cloth, painting what some have described as an inaccurate and unfair portrait of Zuckerberg and his motivations. To say nothing of his girlfriends.

For instance, this scene, apparently, did not happen:

So, let me ask you a question: Do you care whether Bob Woodward really asked Carl Bernstein if there was anywhere he didn’t smoke? Would you rather live in the world where The Social Network was a letter-perfect piece of documentary history, or the one where you get to see Andrew Garfield tell Jesse Eisenberg to “Lawyer up, asshole”?

Four years later, this is a no-brainer, and the movie is still the most purely entertaining one Fincher has ever made. There’s an understandable urge to make popular culture answer for all sorts of crimes and misdemeanors, and to want the artifacts of our culture to mean something more than simply what they are. Certainly, we are all little Daniel Kaffees, staring at the screen, begging for the truth. But sometimes Jaws is just about a shark. That should be enough. Well-told stories are a wonder, and The Social Network is one of the best-told of the decade.

Part of what’s wonderful about the film is its energy. This feels like Fincher’s youngest film. He didn’t just catch a cast on its way up; he was the trampoline that bounced them into the constellation. If you were a young actor in The Social Network, you’d almost be pissed off. What are the chances you are ever going to be in a movie as good as this again?

The young ones are crucial here, though. The Social Network has been described as a story about ambition, greed, and the Information Age. That’s not cool. You know what’s cool? COLLLLLLLEGE.

The Sequence

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When Mark Zuckerberg pitches the idea for “The Facebook” to Eduardo Saverin, in the freezing Cambridge cold, outside of a Jewish fraternity’s Jamaican-themed party, he says, “What if we took the entire social experience of college and put it online?”

In the spirit of people stealing ideas, Fincher goes ahead and takes a five-finger discount on this one: He puts the entire social experience of college into a seven-minute film sequence.

A little less than 10 minutes into the film, the newly single, slightly buzzed Zuckerberg gets an idea from a drunk friend in his dorm room, and lets the hacking begin. Just like that, the world was going up on a Tuesday.

You probably didn’t go to Harvard, and wherever you did wind up going to school probably wasn’t lit by Fincher and Jeff Cronenweth, so it didn’t look like you were living inside J.M.W. Turner’s “Fishermen at Sea.” But you probably did have nights like the one in which Zuckerberg and his (few) friends hacked the Harvard network and came up with the germ of the idea that would eventually become Facebook. Of course, you came up with a toxic pizza topping combo; those dudes changed the world.

The Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor composition that scores the sequence is called “In Motion,” and that’s the thing to keep in mind: Something is always moving in this scene — if it’s not Fincher’s camera, it’s Zuckerberg’s fingers, the clock, or the cursor on his computer screen as he simultaneously blogs and codes. This is college — simultaneously sedentary and thrilling.

Meanwhile, in a different part of town, on a different planet, this is happening:

This sequence is shot, scored, and performed like a heist. But watch the various kids — Dustin and Billy making screwdrivers, the stoned dude on the couch watching Shark Week, the students in the lab, Erica Albright’s roommate in her flannel pajamas, the kids in the pizza parlor, all while beautiful people on E dance to Serato-synced songs.

Watch the subtle ways in which Saverin and Zuckerberg interact. Not yet business partners, not yet courtroom opponents — just two guys with a very specific dynamic.

This is Fincher’s campus tale — somewhere in here is his version of Lucky Jim or a David Lodge novel — set inside his American dream story. Outsiders, looking in through a computer screen. We, as viewers, in turn, looking in on the outsiders, through their windows. And what’s that written on one of them?

About those windows. Whether you went to Harvard or Temple or lived on an organic farming collective, your late teens and early twenties are a time of dislocation, alienation, and scattered moments of ecstasy (and occasionally, Ecstasy). Which is weird, because it’s also a time when you are living all over other people. Fincher gets at the high-density alienation that comes along with college — all the lonely people, where do they all belong? Dorms, probably. Who can say whether the footage of the bacchanalian final club party isn’t the collective fever dream of all the kids in hooded sweatshirts, shut out of the imagined gathering they didn’t get invited to?

The essence of the film’s take on Facebook is right here: This was a way to see through those windows, over those walls, to create your own final club. But to show this, Fincher had to, ever so briefly (seven minutes!), show the loneliness and the fun these guys were trying to conquer and re-create, respectively.

The May-December Love Story Inside The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

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“I think people are perverts,” Fincher says in a bonus featurette called “Men Who Hate Women” on the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Blu-ray. Then he smiles devilishly. “I’ve maintained that. That’s the foundation of my career.”

Here’s the thing: Fincher. Is. Lying. Here’s how we know: His adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the Swedish goth-noir thriller that burned up Hudson Booksellers across the globe, is a sweet, almost saccharine love story. Forget about the rape, the rape revenge, the torture chamber, the international gun-running scandal, the tattoos, the incest, and the bone-cold Swedish winter. This is a heartwarming story about a weathered older man becoming reenergized by an exciting young woman who is smarter and craftier than he. It’s no wonder the press tour for Dragon Tattoo became one long pantomime about weathered 49-year-old Fincher and his young muse Rooney Mara — with whom he’d bonded on The Social Network — and the prospects of a potential affair. Consider this fawning, cryptic exchange between the two that opens an Interview magazine conversation.

Fincher: So my understanding is that there was an altercation [at a wedding] with an enthusiastic, possibly inebriated, mid-20s male who, without your consent, decided to lift you into the air.

Mara: Yes.

Fincher: And then dance with you as if you were some kind of toy.

Mara: Yes.

Fincher: And you responded by grasping his larynx — with extreme prejudice.

Mara: I very calmly advised him that I could …

Fincher: Do bodily harm.

Mara: Yes, that I could do serious bodily harm, and that he should probably put me down.

Fincher: I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.

Mara: Why? I don’t know if it was so much a Lisbeth Salander moment.

Fincher: No, what I like is that it was a Rooney Mara moment.

Is this movie-star mythmaking or out-and-out flirting? It hardly matters. Lisbeth Salander, the ghoul-chic heroine of Dragon Tattoo, is an intriguingly obvious idea of sensuality for Fincher, who examines her in repose throughout the movie. She is lithe and dark, her skin a pallid gray. She looks like one of his neatly appointed sets, soundtracked by Suicidal Tendencies. Her partner and paramour, the disgraced journalist turned detective Mikael Blomkvist, is a wounded “great man,” driven to solitude and the whims of a wealthy family. They are an unlikely pair, but they meet at the perfect time.

Dragon Tattoo has a bad reputation (or none at all), but revisiting it reveals a shocking ingenuity and a bittersweet point of view: Life sucks, buy a motorcycle. And before the sequel-anticipating ending,3 Fincher puts us through the paces of blossoming love with rom-com efficacy. There isn’t one distinct sequence that takes us inside the Spencer Tracy–and–Katharine Hepburn–style romantic negotiation happening here. Instead, we get all the beats.

The Meet-Cute


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Said sequel is likely not coming, at least not from Fincher.

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The Older Man Reminisces

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The Witty Repartee

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The Consummation

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The Morning After

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The Revenge on the Maniacal Serial Killer Hiding Under Their Noses the Whole Time

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The Confession

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The Reluctant Farewell

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At its conclusion, it all feels a bit like Brief Encounter, a love felt deeply and then retired. By the time of Dragon Tattoo, Fincher had been everywhere: He’d been a box office king, a commercial artiste, an awards-monger, and a puzzled-over technician. But he’d never been a lover. In fact, aside from the more traditionally gooey and unearned love-across-the-ages in Benjamin Button, the last significant romance in his films consisted of the psychosexual encounters of Marla Singer and Tyler Durden. And we know the tenor of that coupling. So look at Dragon Tattoo again. It’s love minus zero, no limits.

And Now, a Word From Our Sponsors

It’s cool how one of the most accomplished feature film directors of the last 20 years is also one of the most influential commercial and music video auteurs of all time. Always nice to have a plan B. Over the last few years, Fincher’s output in these fields has slowed, but he still finds time for them, now and then. In 2013, he shot the video for Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie,” and just recently, four new Gap commercials of his hit the airwaves.

This is not a one-for-me, one-for-them situation. Fincher clearly likes making commercials. You can imagine the pride in his voice when he talks about the way he shot the advertising campaign for his Netflix series House of Cards. He seems to take it as seriously as directing the first two episodes of the first season. Maybe the “it’s just business” nature of television, advertising, and music videos appeals to Fincher’s cynical worldview. And after all, nobody said these acts of commercial creativity weren’t creative.

The Sequence

Let’s not get into the semiotics of normcore clothing commercials or J.T.’s dance moves. This is just a note to say that, for a guy capable of making colors look claustrophobic, Fincher makes black-and-white look just like heaven.

Maybe he sees it as an escape. He’s obsessed with movies — perhaps black-and-white represents some kind of dream world. Or maybe money just feels good.

This article initially misidentified the Transamerica Pyramid as the Prudential Building.