David Fincher: superlative film-maker and modern cinema genius

With the imminent arrival of his version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I thought it was time to examine the work of a true genius of modern cinema – DAVID FINCHER.

From Se7en to Fight Club, from The Game to Panic Room, from Zodiac to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, DAVID FINCHER is a truly gifted filmmaker at work. With the imminent arrival of his latest film, a re-working of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I thought it was time to salute one of my favourite directors.

FINCHER’s debut feature in 1992 was Alien 3. It was told with his now trademark visual flair and dynamic story-telling drive. So what if people didn’t think it kicked as much arse as James Cameron‘s Aliens, or the seminal first movie, it was a whole different tone!

Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey and Morgan Freeman in Se7en

Brad Pitt as Mills, Kevin Spacey as John Doe and Morgan Freeman as Somerset in Se7en

But he followed that with a blow to the solar plexus in 1995 that was Se7en – in retrospect, possibly seen as his real debut and my first experience of this spectacular director. Se7en is one of my favourite films and it just continues to astound, viewing after viewing. It’s the serial killer movie that redefined the whole genre and it contains some of the most exquisite cinematography in modern film, courtesy of the great Darius Khondji as well as two stellar performances at its centre (or three if you count a certain cameo). It illustrates that you can do something different with the world-weary cop who’s seen too much and never fired his gun and the driven, young detective with everything to prove – and lose. Somerset played by the incredible Morgan Freeman with the kind of jaded wisdom that you really hadn’t seen done quite that way before, is the intelligent focused centre around which Mills, played by Brad Pitt (in the first of his killer trilogy of performances for the director) revolves and will maybe learn something from. Together they journey into this particular heart of darkness, which at its end, will change them – and us – forever. Stunning. Just stunning.

The movies that followed Se7en were no less bravura from DAVID FINCHER. In 1997, Michael Douglas delivered one of his best performances when he was thrown into a disconcerting nightmare with sheer, ever spiralling cleverness of The Game; in 1999, FINCHER reunited with Pitt to literally blew ours and Edward Norton’s mind with his daring adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s cult novel Fight Club; and in 2002, a not yet teenage Kristen Stewart partnered the ever-brilliant Jodie Foster in the mother/daughter in peril nail-biter that was Panic Room.

Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac

Mark Ruffalo as Detective Toschi and Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith in Zodiac

Five years then passed before we could savour another FINCHER cinematic event. But when his new film did arrive, what an amazing one it was – Zodiac, the epic, frightening reconstruction of the serial killer who terrorised San Francisco in the late 1960s and 70s and the people who tried to catch him. Told superbly through three very different characters: Robert Downey Jr‘s boozy but tenacious newshound Paul Avery, Mark Ruffalo’s dogged, straight-as-an-arrow cop David Toschi and Jake Gyllenhaal‘s geekily brilliant cartoonist-cum-crusader Robert Graysmith. It was absolutely riveting to watch and remains alongside Se7en, one of my Fincher favourites.

Only a year later in 2008, he collaborated for the third time with Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, another epic tale – almost a fable – about a man who ages backwards and the girl he loves but is destined to never really be with played beautifully by Cate Blanchett. From the roll call of actors alone who have worked on Fincher’s films, it gives you some sense of how highly he’s regarded in cinema. But then in 2010, he worked with a predominantly unknown young cast to bring us one of his biggest successes, The Social Network. Through the friendship of Jesse Eisenberg’s terrifically driven Mark Zuckerberg and Andrew Garfield’s excellently moralistic Eduardo Saverin, we were wowed but also aghast at what occurred in the creation of Facebook. I actually think this film gets darker and darker with each viewing, it’s tremendous.

Rooney Mara is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Rooney Mara is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

So, that brings up to date, where on 26th December, we have the reinvention of Lisbeth Salander – one of modern literature’s most visceral heroines. A young woman fighting for her place in a bloody and brutal world, aided only by the honest journalist (who is actually her soul mate) Mikael Blomkvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I can’t tell you how excited I am by the thought that the first of Stieg Larsson’s stories involving these two characters are being re-envisioned by Mr Fincher. It seems such a natural pairing and I’m sure he will bring his unique dimension to the stories so that they may exist alongside the excellent Scandinavian version.

Plus, after the success of working alongside the incomparable Aaron Sorkin on The Social Network (which I’m sorry just to go back to, should have won ‘Best Picture’), he is working with another great wordsmith on this project, Steven Zaillian – the superb screenwriter responsible for amongst others Schindler’s List, Clear and Present Danger, American Gangster, Gangs of New York and Moneyball. Add to that, the dynamic casting of Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara (startling in the opening scene of The Social Network and already drawing huge praise for her portrayal of Lisbeth), alongside support to die for – Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Steven Berkoff, Goran Visnjic – we have everything in place for a real Fincher cinematic event.

People comment on his interest in darkness and shadows and I certainly think those are themes that allow him to examine characters and situations that make us question human behaviour and push the boundaries of storytelling in film. Even The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which before I saw it I thought as a sweeping, romantic epic was a step away from his usual metier but having seen it, was blown away by the dark melancholy at its heart. I love the fact he tackles hard stories and what’s more, executes them with such specificity, borne out of many takes (95 plus for the bar scene at the start of The Social Network), incredible detail in each frame and what must be the clearest vision of what he wants to see at the start.

And so I look forward to whatever’s next out of Mr Fincher’s bag of tricks. Apart from hopefully the second and third Tattoos, on the slate for 2012 is the US TV version of the acidly witty and very dark British political drama House of Cards which will reunite him with Kevin Spacey. Mmm, can’t wait. Darkness and DAVID FINCHER – bring it on!