Antagonise This! The Harsh Narrative of David Fincher

Jon Meakin takes a look back over the career of the unmistakable David Fincher.

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Originally posted in March 2017:

There is no mistaking the visual style of a David Fincher film, but it’s rare that we talk about his approach to narrative. Despite dipping his toes into a variety of genres, the story structure is so consistent he easily satisfies the auteur theory, no matter who is trying to apply it (the rules seem to shift about a bit).

It is as simple as considering his lead character an antagonist rather than a protagonist. Things are never as simple as good versus evil, but those who pass for heroes are usually at odds with everyone else. Aliens within the narrative world so to speak, and their efforts to restore a state of equilibrium are rarely successful, or at least not as they would wish. Nihilism and despair often follow; Fincher’s moral ambiguity is elegant, but never pretty. While his leads are usually the ones causing the most trouble, this makes us, the poor audience, squirm a little bit more. And we love every second. It’s as if Tyler Durden himself were directing each film, whispering promises of anarchy to the viewer as he would Edward Norton’s hapless narrator in Fight Club.

Fincher is far from the only one to do this. It’s an obvious function in the horror genre, but putting that aside, it is put to more sophisticated use via Travis Bickle in Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, an innocently reprehensible individual. And while not the lead character, Star Wars employs Han Solo to make sure everyone else knows how silly they are. Han’s narrative function is vital to the success of the saga and his development into The Force Awakens is poetic and not at all lazy as some critics have claimed of the new film overall.

While not the only director who follows this method then, he is the only one who applies it to every film he makes. And how. He turns the screw another quarter of a turn every time, emphasising perversion, underscoring eccentricity and exposing flaws. In a final dash of cruelty, his flawed heroes are usually made to suffer at the film’s close. He holds up a mirror to our world to show us how ugly it can be and how fragile our morals are; how easy it is for an outsider to unravel everything we rely on.

Let’s take a look at his films and see who is causing the most trouble, whether they intend to or not. Spoilers frequently abound unhindered from here on in.

ALIEN 3 (1992, written by David Giler, Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson from a story by Vincent Ward)
The primary threat in monster movies is usually the monster, or at least its mastermind keeper. Not so in Alien 3; the real cause of conflict is Ripley. Her very presence is far more abhorrent than the thing she happened to crash land on the penal colony with.

The poor fellows imprisoned on the planet make for entertaining xenomorph snacks, but weirdly, they welcome this “Dragon”. Death is part of a cycle that they have been prepared for with religious zeal. Meanwhile, the alien is also right at home, being the most efficient lifeform in the universe. But a woman? That really screws all of them up. Even the creature is rendered impotent when it meets her.
Alien 3 wasn’t a good first impression from newbie David Fincher. That’ll happen when you kill off fan favourite characters before the opening credits have finished, “have no weapons of any kind” and infer the audience should sympathise with a bunch of interchangeable bald English guys. Oops. Even the director disowned it.

Its reputation is undeserved. It is a mess, but a brilliant one; Alien and Aliens is a heck of double-bill and tough to follow. Perhaps all that’s wrong with the film is that Fincher dragged an audience of Alien fans kicking and screaming right where they most certainly didn’t want to go. He did at least establish a method of character and structure that he has largely stuck with. It was easy to dismiss in Alien 3 because you would expect those kinds of shenanigans in the horror genre anyway.

In all of his films, Fincher gleefully lays bare even his most innocent character’s morals and punishes them for it, and so Alien 3 also establishes his other habit: the bleak, yet triumphant ending that rarely favours the hero (if we must use that term when discussing his oeuvre, then it is loosely). It is the doomed Ripley that must accept her destiny, more so than the prisoners.

At this stage, it’s easy to dismiss any of David Fincher’s aesthetic as merely part of the horror genre. And yet, he uses the same method even when he made dramas and wistful romantic comedies. This is going to get ugly…

SEVEN (1995, written by Andrew Kevin Walker)
A serial killer hunt is just another kind of monster movie and as with the Alien, Kevin Spacey’s John Doe is our villain, but not our antagonist. (Spacey would fulfill that in Fincher-esque American Beauty). Neither is Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman), instead, he is a reflection of Doe’s rituals and habits; duality is another recurring theme in a David Fincher film (Alien 3, Fight Club, Gone Girl, etc). For Somerset, it’s the routine of preparing his clothes in a morning. For John Doe, it’s tying a man to a chair and patiently force-feeding him until he bursts. Horses for courses.

Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) is the antagonist, the outsider who can free either of the other two men. His eagerness and idealism set him at odds with those who already occupy this circle of hell. In the downbeat ending Somerset is powerless to stop Mills rewarding John Doe, effectively freeing him. Somerset is left trapped in purgatory by his own nobility.

David Fincher’s ferocious thriller is his first foray into the world of serial killers and the people that find them. With something to prove after Alien 3, the aggression and nihilism is startling to this day. It’s a perfect example of Fincher’s approach: he follows typical narrative theory in establishing, disrupting and repairing an equilibrium, but what sets it apart is that it isn’t obvious who is doing the disrupting. And can the equilibrium even be repaired? Not in this cursed city it can’t.

Seven is ruthless like nothing before it, but not without precedent. Fincher still has one foot in the horror genre, following in the steps of The Silence of The Lambs to blur the line between heroes and villains, but time has proved he is second-to-none when it comes to exploring a fascination with serial killers and the similarly flawed minds needed to catch them.

The pattern in his audacious approach the narrative was always sophisticated and soon, he will really start pushing the buttons of the audience.

THE GAME (1997, written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris)
This curious oddity is far from a failure, but falling in between the behemoths of Seven and Fight Club, David Fincher’s third film, a sort of fucked up It’s a Wonderful Life, is his most underrated. The plot contrived so much misfortune for the lead character, it came off a little too perverse. He got away with it in his first two features using a horror theme and he’s asking the audience to accept it in a thriller. Certainly, the world of The Game is the most real for the audience yet.

Rather than embracing the contrast his outsider creates for others, Fincher emphasises it even more by making everyone one step ahead throughout. Nicholas van Orton (Michael Douglas) is quite happy, being rich, dull and ignorant until the mysterious Game rudely pulls him out of his own life. He becomes his own antagonist.

You could argue it’s van Orton’s younger brother causing the trouble, played by Sean Penn. He’s not in the film enough to drive the story alone, but his existence brings in the duality Fincher likes using. It is Penn that can see both van Orton’s bleak existence and the Game that he instigates to mix things up, so they are a narrative partnership like the detectives in Seven. Either way, Fincher’s direction captures the short-sighted sensationalism of the story and runs with it. The ending is clumsy and unconvincing but presses the point home. Only in a David Fincher film can narrowly avoiding suicide be considered a win.

FIGHT CLUB (1999, screenplay by Jim Uhls, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk)
If ever a character embodied David Fincher’s style of directing, it has to be Tyler Durden. He’s possibly Fincher’s most obvious antagonist, teasing the hapless Edward Norton. But if you’ve seen Fight Club, you know it’s not quite that simple and this is another narrative partnership, similar to Se7en. Durden is a hallucination and Norton is the “Narrator”, not the first unnamed Fincher character (a specific change from the script, in which Norton was playing “Jack”). We never learn his name because Fincher saw him as an everyman. He represents the viewer.

Fincher wasn’t the first to apply horror tropes to a detective thriller as he did with Seven, and even The Game leans on a couple of set-pieces and evocative imagery. Fight Club is thus far his most audacious project, trusting the audience to go with a drama that is driven by character but has enough fizz to want to be a thriller. It split critics at the time, but we should be disappointed if it didn’t because the cult following it earned proved it was a success and Fincher has had the confidence to treat drama as a thriller sandpit ever since. The single-minded focus in Fight Club is so playful, it borders on being perverse.

“The things you own end up owning you” indeed. The satire is pointedly telling us that as much as anyone within the story. In that sense, it continues the theme of The Game, except it’s the viewer getting picked on this time. Distorting the contrived eccentricity of North By North West, Fight Club demonstrates Fincher’s appreciation of Hitchcockian themes, directing as if he was sat in the audience.

PANIC ROOM (2002, written by David Koepp)
It’s an efficient, thoroughly enjoyable thriller, but there is little that makes Panic Room stand-out as a “David Fincher Film” which he himself called a good date movie. There is no unusual antagonist to speak of and the smudging of heroes and villains is rather routine. It’s a survival story with the titular panic room providing the intriguing hook.

A film theory is only worth applying if it lends itself to the subject and it really doesn’t in Panic Room. The point of a David Fincher film is that you shouldn’t have to go looking for the deliberately antagonistic element in the plot. Others have written excellent dissections of the themes and metaphors within the film, but the narrative offers no secrets this time. It even has a happy ending.

ZODIAC (2007, screenplay by James Vanderbilt)
We’re back in the world of murder and, as with the Alien or John Doe, the Zodiac killer is merely taking advantage of an environment that accepts his existence. It’s the one chasing him that’s the real weirdo.

Zodiac was David Fincher’s first film based on nonfiction; Robert Graysmith’s book on the unsolved Zodiac killings is considered to be one of the closest explanations. Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the first real-life candidate for a Fincher antagonist, the exact kind of lunatic he loves. He worked at the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of the killings, but not as a hard-nosed journalist. He was a cartoonist. What on earth was he doing messing around with serial killers?

Hitchcock would frequently explore the idea of murder on your doorstep and how the macabre fascinates normal people and Dario Argento followed suite. In Deep Red, it’s an actor who can’t help investigating when he could easily walk away. Yet Graysmith didn’t even have the excuse that he was targeted by the killer or witnessed something. He literally was just a cartoonist and put everything at risk to follow up his crazy theory. And consider that the Zodiac killer was never caught, so Graysmith saw no quick reward for his efforts perhaps until his book was published. The film captures that lovely irony in the last killer shot. Jake Gyllenhaal was a cracking choice to play this particular oddball as he, perhaps by chance, gravitates to Fincher-esque narratives. Nightcrawler follows a Taxi Driver aesthetic and Donnie Darko qualifies too.

The true story behind the San Francisco murders must have been irresistible for Fincher because he could get away with twisting the knife just a little further to really accentuate the perverse undercurrent in the plot. In a natural progression from Hitchcock and Argento, he delights in emphasising the touch of insanity that all his best characters display, but also ensures the audience can recognise themselves. Zodiac also represented a shift into a more sophisticated, electrified style.

2007 was an incredible year for American cinema. There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford are all timeless classics, as is David Fincher’s Zodiac. They lay bare the flaws of the American psyche and recall the self-critical, fertile independent cinema of the 1970s (for example, Dirty Harry which was both an early exploitation film and inspired by the same killings as depicted in Zodiac). They are comparable projects the directors could have shared, but only Fincher exploits his lead character’s alienation to such lengths.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008, written by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, based on a short-story by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
After a break of a few years, David Fincher returned with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It was popular, perfectly well-made and it is also his worst by a considerable margin.

Adapted from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, it appears to be sweet and romantic, a gentle tale of time and nostalgia. That doesn’t sound right for Fincher, but you can see why he was attracted to it when you consider Button as one of his antagonists; his curious case of an upside-down life is literally the opposite of what is expected by anyone around him. Unfortunately, it just emphasises how much of a jerk the guy is.

Button is misogynistic, irresponsible and bears his affliction with such pious sentimentality, we should be inclined to vomit. Fincher’s rejection of a protagonist is the fundamental undoing of the story as his lead character forces people to accommodate his behaviour, none more so than poor Cate Blanchett. Already misrepresented as being aloof, she has the temerity to dream of being a dancer, rather than dream of Benjamin, until a butterfly flapped its wings and she loses the use of her legs. Fate, huh? He then abandons her to raise his daughter alone. In the end, Button is saved the ignominy of old age thanks to Alzheimer’s, while Cate gets to watch a baby die. Unusually for a David Fincher narrative, Benjamin is granted an easy exit. He dies unknown even to himself, a late and feeble effort to garner sympathy. Or is it?

Miracle backwards ageing aside, Button demands unearned respect merely by existing and the viewer is expected to be similarly impressed. It recalls Fight Club where Edward Norton misinterprets the stern advice of a doctor and pretends to have a terminal disease just so he can feel part of something. But that was satire, the behaviour presented as immoral and uncomfortable. This is a feel-good fantasy.

What a horrible, dishonest film. It’s worse when you consider that Eric Roth also adapted Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump. As with Button, the short story was changed and movie-Gump can similarly be accused of being a thinly-veiled male fantasy; a life free of direct responsibility, he’s exceptionally popular just for being himself. In the end, he too doesn’t have to raise his own child, because his beloved, flighty Jenny thoughtfully didn’t reveal her son until she had the decency to die. Forrest is left with a kid that can dress himself, but no nagging wife.

That’s a cynical and unfair reading of Forrest Gump. The film is wonderful. Even while talking about it, I can hear the theme and recall Tom Hanks’ joyful performance making Forrest a generous soul so the film can use him as an ode to America. It rests comfortably on his shoulders, and Robin Wright Penn’s Jenny has a tragic story, but it resonates. That’s down to Robert Zemeckis’ chocolate box direction that delivers charm for an audience that wants and knows what they’re going to get. It’s easy to be cynical, but it’s a very clever film, rich in irony and occasional flashes of dark humour. In contrast, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is selfish and only offers out-of-date coffee creams.

Maybe Fincher knew what he was doing and is secretly annoyed that his film was taken at face value. In the kind of reaction you’d expect in one of his films, Fincher was so proud of the critical reception Fight Club attracted, he had a quote by critic Alexander Walker framed (see the making of The Social Network). In a rare weak moment of nepotism, did he make The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as if Tyler Durden had directed it? He often seems to, but here the joke would be on us, making the film an unlikely masterpiece as it disappears up its own backside.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010, screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, based on The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich)
It’s an unlikely but poetic idea that Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) should be painted as a lovesick nerd that created Facebook just to track down a crush, screwing over his best friend in the meantime. It demonstrates how The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was all a matter of perspective because the format of both films bears some comparison. We’re supposed to grow to dislike Zuckerberg, he’s supposed to make us wince.

The Social Network is the film for this generation. If there is such a thing as a zeitgeist, the irony captured here is almost painfully uncomfortable and it’s likely to mature the more we are inclined to be excessively social with thousands of strangers via technology. The impact on art and culture will be extraordinary, but this early dissection is so simple and human that it will be the definitive commentary for some time. A David Fincher narrative couldn’t be more suitable. Adapted from Ben Mezrich’s book by the razor-sharp mind that is Aaron Sorkin, the very essence of the story of how Facebook came to be is perfect for Fincher’s cynical view of how people affect one another.

The wonderful coda suggests the billion-dollar organisation that literally shares our lives is in the hands of a fool. And of course, we all ignore the warning. This is Fincher’s Fight Club 2, where we willingly hand an idiotic Tyler Durden the power of 1984’s Big Brother in exchange for the illusion of entitlement and cat videos.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011, screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on the book by Stieg Larsson)
Stieg Larsson tragically passed away before he could see what a phenomenon his Millenium Trilogy would become. The Swedish film adaptation in 2009 is brilliant and was a worldwide success, so of course, flattery being Hollywood’s only currency of praise, an English language remake was in production almost immediately. Though entirely superfluous, the remake is understandable when you factor in that David Fincher was the director. The story of how it came to be is rather dry, full of the usual guff about the potential of the story (arrogantly implying the first film missed the mark). It’s more likely that Fincher needed to scratch a very irritating itch. The Swedish language version was the best film he never directed.

The format of the story is a textbook perfect example of how to use an antagonist. You have a newspaper journalist (not a cartoonist this time) uncovering a fairly routine scandal, the sexualised misogyny of which is typical of the current penchant for Scandi-Noir; but into the mix comes Lisbeth Salander. What an incredible character. She is an unpredictable outlaw, legally and emotionally, and has nothing to gain directly from the main plot. Lisbeth isn’t constrained by any kind of etiquette society might expect from her, especially her sexuality. She is the Millenium Trilogy’s punk Han Solo.

Fincher could never ignore her potential and his resulting film is excellent. It does feel overcooked at times, though that may be because Niels Arden Oplev version is so clean by comparison (which emphasises the contrast with Salander). It’s difficult to say which film is better, but Fincher’s wasn’t first and Oplev’s is more effective.

A sequel is mooted and he has an opportunity to capitalise on the plot where the original film trilogy failed. The audience may be there, but part two treats Salander as a lead character and the plot becomes as crazy as she is to contain her. It doesn’t quite work and part three is down right odd, the nuances of the albeit pulp original novels fail to transfer.

GONE GIRL (2014, Screenplay by Gillian Flynn, based on her own book)
David Fincher’s last feature film to date was a straight adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s book and she handled the screenplay too. Nonetheless, it’s possibly Fincher’s most perfect realisation of his narrative method. The delicious, character-led irony is uncomfortable for the audience, despite the vicarious thrill of the extraordinary violence.

Whose fault is the narrative carnage this time? That’s less interesting than why. It’s Rosamund Pike’s Amy, a rare lead female role in Ficher’s filmography, who is in full control from the moment she engineers her own disappearance to when she returns. Narrative-wise, that’s extraordinary; it embraces contrivance and revels in it with brazen disregard for convention, allowing a single character to disrupt, repair and re-establish the film’s equilibrium. The result is invigorating, thrilling cinema that makes a mockery of calling the film a drama. But that’s precisely what it is because aside from the visual panache of Amy’s more stabby moments, this a study of marriage and of secrets. The message is deeply cynical.

Amy has the mentality of a sociopath and Pike’s glorious performance is the physical realisation of what Fincher likes to achieve, no more so than in the moment when she calmly exits the car, soaked in blood, to the complete surprise of the media gathered at her home and especially to her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck). Subverting gender politics and attacking marriage itself, the story has been running rings around Nick. He isn’t remotely innocent, but his punishment is extreme with another Fincher ending that dooms him to a loveless, inescapable marriage.

The one conceit David Fincher hasn’t tackled in his features is breaking the fourth wall. That’s odd given the potential it has and considering his delight in manipulating both his own characters and the viewer. Fight Club comes close, but the possibilities are only teased.

He makes up for this omission in his first television venture, the remake of classic British series House of Cards that starred the much missed Ian Richardson, who relished involving the audience in his thoughts. Like with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, how could Fincher not remake it? The story of a Machiavellian politician, manipulating everyone around him is perfect narrative territory for Fincher. It loses its sting during the second season when it becomes apparent that Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is untouchable. But throughout, Spacey clearly has great fun relishing the despicable character’s ruthlessness.

This October, David Fincher’s next TV project will be released by Netflix. Mindhunter is based on the book by Mark Olshaker and John E. Douglas. Set in 1979 it follows two FBI agents (Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany) who interview jailed serial killers (ala The Silence of the Lambs) to get inside and understand the mind of a killer. It’s the start of profiling, something taken for granted now.

If that wasn’t already rich Fincher territory on a subject he loves, the trailer shows the agents have to fight to prove their method works. Antagonists then, unsupported by the establishment. This should be fantastic television, with tons of potential to be mined.

Apart from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo sequel, David Fincher’s next mooted project is the World War Z sequel, which at first appears to be an odd choice. After all, the last time he took on a franchise horror it didn’t work out so well. Then again he appears to favour the horror genre without ever actually making a straightforward entry since his first, misunderstood feature. And zombie movies are particularly blunt, antagonistic things. You only have to consider the vicious social commentary that runs through the late George A. Romero’s films. Romero denied he had an axe to grind and yet it’s there to be found.

It’s possible to read zombies as manifestations of laziness, akin to Fight Club’s narrator wanting to be ill because that’s something he’d be good at. Or Benjamin Button being unable to maintain a relationship because he’s special. Perhaps that’s why zombies are so popular with the so-called slacker generation! Why worry about school or a career when the zombie apocalypse will prove so many teenagers to be hitherto unknown monster slayers? You can see why David Fincher would want to get his teeth into it.

Top of my wish-list would be the inevitable biography of 45th US President Donald J. Trump. The man is a living David Fincher antagonist who appears to be getting away with playing a prank on the entire USA.

Jon Meakin

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

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