The Social Network is a thrilling cinematic labyrinth illuminating the many layers of the modern male ego, and it’s certainly in the top-tier of American efforts from 2010. Seeing it twice theatrically just made me more eager to sit down with the Blu-ray and dissect each scene more carefully. Also posted at InRO (it was Glenn Heath Jr. day apparently).
The oversized burning smily face on the side of a corporate building, characters gazing at the camera with blood-soaked grins, and the overall kidding sensibility during each Norton/Pitt interaction, and suddenly it’s clear – Fight Club is a demented slapstick comedy. A decade on, the film doesn’t come across as masochistic or provocative as it once did, but David Fincher’s notorious mind-game still brashly confronts the viewer as few films do, painting a bleak world of numbing consumerism while laughing at everyone’s culpability in the act. The freeze frames of Edward Norton in distress are especially potent, marking Fincher’s obsession with characters who cannot comprehend the fractured world they live within. Fight Club also finds Fincher at his most playful, riotously moving characters through the frame toward uncertain ends, messing with point of view until the whole world hinges on the edge of oblivion. Fight Club revels in its mischievous antics and that’s part of the fun, but the end result still turns my stomach, since the material laughs a bit too genuinely at the end of Western civilization.
David Fincher structures many of his films around conflicted protagonists at odds with their surroundings, people entrenched behind literal or imagined walls hiding their mind-numbing guilt from the outside world. In Se7en, Det. Somerset (Morgan Freeman) understands and accepts his inability to protect the innocent, while the trio of characters at the heart of Zodiac tragically pursue a futile conclusion to their own obsessive quest of a serial killer. In Panic Room and Fight Club, Fincher’s respective leads entomb themselves inward to escape the evils, either self-induced or not, that challenge notions of physical and mental space. This approach to character organically connects with Fincher’s often brilliant construction of audio and visual elements, allowing for the viewer a first hand look into a very detailed nightmare.
But with The Game, Fincher challenges the root of his hero’s guilt, making Nicolas Van Orten (Michael Douglas) an incredibly wealthy but cinematically ordinary investment banker who chooses to insert himself into a modern day hall of mirrors out of sheer boredom. Even the moments Van Orten sits alone in his dark mansion, or drives down the emotionally hollow San Francisco streets, evoke monotony rather than suspense. Yes, Van Orten’s father killed himself in a rather dramatic fashion, witnessed in the stark 8-mm home movie flashbacks, and Fincher clearly makes a fateful connection between father and son. But for once, the Fincher protagonist isn’t directly responsible for the guilt he feels, at least not in an overt way, which makes the faux cruelty of the film’s narrative striking and relentless. The outside world forces an exciting and dangerous perception onto Van Orten’s benign reality, pushing him to appreciate the life he has built without regretting the family skeletons in the closet. In this way, The Game is literally about cinematic manipulation, and Van Orten, along with the audience happens to be the guinea pig. Disturbingly, the ending seems to suggest that if you’ve got enough money, you can buy your own false comeuppance, learn from it, and move on richer not only in wealth, but moral respects as well. This makes The Game increasingly complex in that the conflicted moral center gets let off the hook and allowed closure, as opposed to other Fincher heroes who suffer mightily to the bitter end. Watching The Game more than a decade after its release and amidst a huge global recession, I wonder if Fincher would be so kind to Van Orten’s future prospects if given the chance.
Comparing the opening and ending scenes in David Fincher’s Se7en goes a long way toward understanding the film’s devastating combination of dark spaces, drowning ambient sound, and urban decay. Before Kyle Cooper’s fragmented credit sequence, Fincher introduces Det. William Sommerset (Morgan Freeman) preparing for another day in his cramped, dimly lit apartment. Sommerset washes dishes, carefully puts on a tie, lays out his professional essentials (badge, knife, wallet, pen), puts on his coat only before picking off a piece of lint, then calmly turns off a lamp. These actions are juxtaposed with continuous, droning noise from the city beyond, immediately establishing the space as an expanding, shifting, and uneasy environment. Fincher then cuts to a medium shot of a body laying face down in a pool of dark blood, the textures of the space flickering off sharp light consumed by overwhelming darkness. Another detective explains the “crime of passion” just committed, then Sommerset replies, “Yeah just look at all that passion on the wall.” Cynical professionalism incarnate. The rest of the film pits Sommerset’s numbness against Det. Mills’ (Brad Pitt) naive eagerness and this clash of ideologies builds to a staggering conclusion.
Passion and vengeance define the ending of Se7en as well, but Fincher stages the dramatic daylight finale in the middle of nowhere, an endless prairie of dead grass framed by distant mountains and dissected by dense telephone towers and wires. Instead of close-ups, Fincher’s favored shot throughout the film, wide angle images dominate, flooded with natural light and kinetic movement, often in the form of POV shots from the circling SWAT helicopter. Since Fincher’s goal is maximum tension and suspense, these shots quiver, jolt, and crush the camera’s eye-line. The sound design combines disjointed bursts of ambient noise with Howard Shore’s menacing requiem. In contrast to the dank and foul interiors of the film’s urban sprawl, these moments are even more horrific because their is no escape, no unsolved anomaly, no crazy uncertainty to distance the characters from the deadly reality. Even though light finally reveals the surface of John Doe’s plan, so much remains unexplained.
So in the end, light and dark display different variations of hell on earth, completing John Doe’s “masterpiece” and the film’s narrative arc in a very unsettling way. Instinct destroys rational thought, and Mills inevitably succumbs to his own vision of heroism. Sommerset is left in limbo, watching his partner descend into the realm of madness, while John Doe gets off scot free with a bullet to the head. In the world of Se7en, we wait for those around us to get picked off by the evils of the earth, all the while selfishly hoping we aren’t next. The rain will never end, and so we helplessly watch in horror.
For nearly three hours, David Fincher’s baffling The Curious Case of Benjamin Button sustains a surprising level of simplistic sentiment toward the life and love of its titular character. Fincher, usually a master of methodical mayhem, constructs his huge story around surging moments of emotional transition even though Benjamin’s (Brad Pitt) personality never achieves a depth in character beyond his kind smile and sensitive demeanor. It’s this contradiction that overwhelms the better moments of magical whimsey throughout the film; like when Benjamin bursts from childbirth a young soul within a decrepit old baby body, then later joins a grungy tug boat crew and experiences WWII first hand. As Benjamin begins to grapple with the reality of mentally growing old while physically growing younger, the film heads into dangerously false territory (the hummingbird, flashbacks). In the end, the flimsy structure and script overwhelm Fincher’s visual bravado and Pitt’s stirring performance, proving Benjamin Button an epic misfire with little more on its mind than overt symbolism.
David Fincher, a director obsessed with the underbelly of American psychology, has been trying hard to make a masterpiece for years. From Se7en, to Fight Club, to Panic Room, Fincher’s films have felt incredibly self-important and self-congratulatory, languishing in layered visuals and German expressionist lighting, attempting time after time to create moods of angst and unease on a large scale. Ironically enough, he’s created his best work with his most restrained, mature, and nuanced directorial effort, the epic police procedural Zodiac. Fincher’s examination of the non-fiction accounts written by San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith, with which James Vanderbilt’s script is based, is both a restless and extensive, meticulous and hazy recreation of the Zodiac killings which took place in the late 1960’s and early 70’s in the San Francisco Bay Area. The ensuing investigation by the police department and the media took years, even decades, and the real identity of the killer was never confirmed (although the film has a good idea who he was). The triptych of obsessed characters at the heart of Zodiac are Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), and SFPD Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), each delving into the Zodiac case with the same gusto, but without any seemingly easy explanation why. At one point in the film, Brian Cox’s lawyer Melvin Belli states that “killing is the Zodiac’s compulsion”, and Fincher infects his protagonists with an equal amount of compulsion toward solving the case. Avery’s drinking gets worse as his personal investigation grows more out of hand. Toschi’s relationship with his partner and family, as well as his public image, all become tainted. Graysmith, the focus of the film’s final third, gets so wrapped up in the minutia of the case he loses his family and doesn’t appear to bat an eye. Fincher’s attention to detail, specifically his beautifully full mise-en-scene of San Francisco, represent his character’s consumption of the Zodiac details, down to the smallest shred of evidence, circumstantial or hard. Zodiac is told in terms of a timeline, constantly flashing forward days, months, years, accounting for the major events and shifts concerning the characters involved. In dong this, Fincher has created a lush, choppy historiography at it’s finest, a fluctuating and shifty re-telling of a crucial social and psychological phenomenon. Zodiac is equally focused on the public fear these killings caused, but also the need for closure by the community at large represented in close proximity by Graysmith, Avery, and Toschi. And Zodiac never gives in, partly since the case was never solved in real life, but mostly because Fincher’s point is to highlight the complexities of the events being discussed. The horror of the first half hour slowly reverberates into long discussions by key figures, stabs at the truth, leading to full blown obsessions with the in’s and outs of the case. No gratuitous or purposefully horrific images unfold, just the doubt which comes with not knowing why. It’s been hours after my screening and Zodiac has already gotten better. It’s as if the film has seeped into my own subconsciousness, begging for more attention, calling into question the facts, and pressing for closure. But that will never happen, because no matter how many times I come across Zodiac, it will always be about the process of compulsion, and whether it be the killing or investigating or watching, it’s a work that will get more fascinating as it’s fallacies grow into the darkness.
It must rain a lot in hell. At least it does in Hollywood’s trumped up version of urban decay and incomparable death. Having felt completely sickened yet fascinated during my first screening of Se7en on a shoddy VHS copy, it’s surprising, now eleven years later, how classy and uneventful director David Fincher’s breakthrough film feels. Noted for it’s brutality and edginess at the time of release, Se7en comes across nowadays as completely standard, by the books, much like Morgan Freeman’s Det. Somerset. Not only has Fincher made more radical, if not altogether dumber renditions of similar stories (look no further than Fight Club), but the serial killer genre itself has moved in a completely different and ridiculous direction, one based on torture and apathy (the Saw Trilogy is a good example) instead of detective work and psychology. Se7en exudes a beautiful understanding of crime film iconography, even while hindered by it’s sometimes idiotic dialogue and pointless characterizations. Still, the rain pours, and we listen to the horrific banter of Kevin Spacey’s John Doe, a killer who will forever haunt audiences gullible enough to take his acting seriously.
Update: I’ve since recently watched the film again, and have no idea what I was thinking previously. It’s a near masterpiece that is in no way “standard.” 6/21/09