David Fincher is one of the most talented directors working today. His methodology, uncompromising pursuit of his vision and willingness to adapt to new technology has afforded him lasting longevity in an industry that constantly refreshes itself. Residing primarily in the thriller genre, Fincher has been able to explore the darker side of human nature, making statements on obsession, greed, social alienation and nihilism.
In celebration of his stellar career, here is his filmography ranked from his earliest beginnings following Ridley Scott and James Cameron in Alien 3 to the present.
10.) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Removing David Fincher from his signature sensibilities is not a recipe for success. Not to say that the attempt to go beyond typical conventions expected of the director is any less noble, it does, however, fail to utilize all of the director’s skills. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a love story told in reverse where our lead the eponymous Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) ages in reverse reminiscent of Forrest Gump with the added gimmick of aging backward involved.
There is potential here as Pitt and Cate Blanchette who stars as his love interest give earnest efforts, coupled with Fincher’s penchant attention to details give Button a solid foundation but the movie becomes a disappointment due to its meandering script and bloated run time. Where Gump won audiences over with his every man appeal (accentuated by the epitome of the every man in Tom Hanks), Button seems to struggle with this in part because there doesn’t feel like his life has many struggles or at least the events that occur do not resonate enough emotionally for the audience to emphasize with that struggle.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button isn’t a particularly bad film and it should not be an indication that he should be restricted to a specific genre but by the standards set forth by Fincher in his career, it is a disappointing film.
9.) Panic Room (2002)
Panic Room is David Fincher getting dealt a bad hand and making the most of what he has. The premise behind the film is pretty by the numbers, Three intruders invade a house where a mother (Jodie Foster) and her daughter (a young Kristen Stewart) reside. It is then a battle of wills as the two sides attempt to outplay the other in a psychological chess match. The straightforwardness of the plot limits what Fincher can do because he has shown that he thrives when given twists and turns. Unfortunately, Panic Room does not afford him that opportunity but he still manages to put some flair into his shots (as seen below).
8.) Gone Girl (2014)
Fincher’s full capabilities somewhat mask Gone Girl’s plot issues that will challenge your suspension of belief if you actually take a second to think about it. Ben Affleck plays one of the dumbest characters in recent memory, a product of the film’s lackluster writing and Affleck himself, who really doesn’t seem all that interested in the material. Playing the scumbag husband Nick Dunne, he finds himself the primary suspect when his wife (Rosamund Pike) goes missing.
Inherently we have been taught to expect the unexpected when it comes to these films so it is a testament to Fincher’s abilities that he is able to hold your attention and subvert expected outcomes for as long as he does. Place it in the hands of any other director and Gone Girl becomes a far less interesting movie (case in point Girl on the Train) but under Fincher’s vision, Gone Girl becomes much better than its plot allows for.
7.) Alien 3 (1992)
Alien 3 is the easy target in Fincher’s filmography. It’s been publicly disowned by the director and is nowhere near as good as its two predecessors BUT that doesn’t mean it necessarily a bad movie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no masterpiece but comparing it to Alien (1979) or Aliens (1986) is like having the two guys hitting before you hit 400 foot home runs and following it up with a ground rule double when it’s your turn to bat. Is that a bad result? No, it just looks bad in comparison to the two guys you followed.
After all Alien 3 does give us glimpses of Fincher’s technical brilliance (especially if viewing the assembly cut of the movie) in addition to another standout performance from Sigourney Weaver in her most iconic role. Furthermore, there are instances of ambition that would have made for an interesting film in itself but as it has been well documented, the sheer amount of production changes meant that the ambition that Alien 3 may have had under Fincher was squashed by its biggest flaw: the distinct lack of unity in its direction.
Unlike the original Alien which was a brilliant sci-fi horror and Aliens which saw James Cameron take over to make a quasi action-space western, Alien 3 lacks a concrete direction, the themes that it establishes early on loses its footing once the action breaks loose in the third act and we fall into the trap of redoing what the previous two films did more effectively.
Still, Alien 3 is an entertaining movie, one that should get more praise when viewing the franchise as a whole because as Ridley Scott has demonstrated to us with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, even he can’t match the heights he reached in the original Alien.
6.) The Game (1997)
The Game is the Fincher film every one forgets, starring Michael Douglas as a man trapped in a sick demented game (not unlike Saw). As he often does when he is in form, Fincher melds tension with paranoia creating a deliciously dark atmosphere as the lines of morality, of real life versus the game become blurred.
Like Gone Girl, The Game suffers from some plot contrivances as in both cases to execute their plans, it requires a certain degree of implausibility, however, these plot holes are far easier to forgive when your film disguises its deception well. The audience is prepared for deception, that is pretty much a given as soon as you sit down knowing it’s a thriller so incorporating misdirection effectively is paramount to the success of a thriller. Thankfully Fincher delivers in this regard (at least for much of the film), the ending will cause some grievances for pushing the limits of belief but for at least 90 minutes, The Game is a stylistic thrill ride worthy of your time.
5.) Fight Club (1999)
Fight Club is a product of its time, existing permanently as a fixture for burgeoning rebellious minds and hyper-macho alpha males with something to prove. A fun exercise if you ever get the chance is to show this film to someone between 18-22. In my experience, you can actually see eyes light up as the movie develops because it speaks to that “fuck the system”, anarchic mentality that embodies youthful exuberance. This is partially why Fight Club has become a cult classic despite being a box office failure in its initial theatrical run inspiring activists and anarchists alike who all seemingly quote the same Brad Pitt speech.
Fight Club is both a relic of the grunge-punk era from which it was made and ironically a rallying point for the same macho alpha types in which it satirizes. For his part, Fincher further demonstrates his control over a narrative subtlety hinting at the film’s big twist through clever editing. Closing out the 90s, there is perhaps no film made during this decade that is so decidedly representative of the counterculture at the time.
4.) Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)
A remake of a Swedish film based on a novel of the same name, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo occupies the space that Fincher excels in: the procedural thriller. Fincher has made his best films in this particular genre because it lends itself to explorations in obsession and into the inner workings of the mind. Detectives, savants, and investigators in Fincher’s films all share that same obsessive trait over their work and the lead in Dragon Tattoo, a reporter turned private investigator – Mikael Blomkvist (played by Daniel Craig) is no different as he gets increasingly intertwined into the mysteries surrounding a wealthy Swedish family. In relation to his other thrillers, Dragon Tattoo doesn’t quite reach the same tense highs as his best films (or arguably the Swedish original) but thanks to an Oscar nominated performance from a near unrecognizable Rooney Mara and Fincher’s iconic style, the film is still a cut above your average affair.
Mara’s Lisbeth Salander is a revelation here. Her relationship with Craig’s Blomkvist and how that contrasts with the other broken social connections in her life are the real highlight here making the mystery that they are supposed to solve secondary to her much more interesting backstory. Eventually, both sides tie together in a loose statement on revenge and the powers of technology – a coy statement from Fincher who has often used digital advances in his work. Incidentally Dragon Tattoo marks the first time he transitioned from shooting on film to shooting digitally.
3.) The Social Network (2010)
On the surface, nothing monumentally exciting happens in The Social Network, as much as it is about the early creation of Facebook, it is equally about a bunch of (smart) assholes being assholes over money (a point that Rooney Mara’s character so brilliantly points out in a one-off scene). So how does this movie work so effectively?
The answer is by embracing the unlikeability of its characters, working in tandem with Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue, Fincher extracts a degree of arrogance out of his cast. The sharpness from which Sorkin writes come off as barbed jabs, a war of words between Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg and those who oppose his “genius”. It is this battle that makes The Social Network fascinating to watch turning boring legal battles into a spectacle. Fincher’s grasp of the cinematic language is strong framing and staging shots with precision so as to accentuate Sorkin’s already sharp words while outlining shifting power dynamics. The two elements make for an ideal pairing coupled with a strong score that makes mundane events such as rowing captivating.
So how do you make the mundane interesting? Just embrace the asshole (oh and hiring one of the finest directors and accomplished screenwriters in the business helps too)
2.) Se7en (1995)
Se7en captures you from the opening credits, a dazzling montage of images that is so much more than plain text placed over various establishing shots (a trend that has become a trademark for Fincher throughout his filmography). Following his less than stellar experience directing Alien 3, Se7en is Fincher’s coming out party where he shows you that if you give him enough control to execute his vision he will deliver a masterclass in cinematic craftsmanship.
Following a reserved Morgan Freeman in one of his best roles as Detective Somerset, he is unceremoniously given the case of a finding a serial killer who arranges his murders based on the seven deadly sins. Paired with a young hotshot detective (Brad Pitt as David Mills), the two form a Lethal Weapon-esque partnership as they uncover each deeply disturbing murder scene. Being Fincher’s darkest film to date, Se7en is extremely graphic giving way for Fincher to really open up his toolbox in terms of the way he designs a scene. The end result is a wildly visceral film, a long-form visual love letter to what can be accomplished in a crime thriller that will leave you asking “what’s in the box?” even though in the back of your mind, you already know the answer.
1. ) Zodiac (2007)
Zodiac gets a slight edge over Se7en because it is the more refined product both for Fincher as a visual artist and in the way the story is constructed. Much like Hitchcock’s Psycho or Rear Window, Zodiac is a psychological thriller tied to a tightly wound mystery that breeds obsession. In Psycho, it’s Norman Bates’ obsession with his filial duty to Mother, Rear Window explores James Stewart’s obsession with what is or isn’t happening across the street and Zodiac examines the obsession of three detectives in catching the Zodiac Killer.
Utilizing three standout performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr, Fincher molds tension with extreme precision. Everyone is a possible suspect, every extended pause feels like it could have significance which makes every dead end the detectives encounter all the more maddening.
Where both Fight Club and the Social Network will fall into being relics of their time, Zodiac has the timelessness that those films lack. Compared to Se7en, Zodiac is more reserved particularly in style though by that same token, it feels more confident, where Fincher can afford to bide his time trusting that it doesn’t always have to be a grisly crime scene that invokes a response in the audience. As an obsessive-compulsive person, Fincher understands the dangers of obsession, that sometimes the greatest threat is not the serial killer but one’s own mind.