Mank, the latest from director David Fincher, is yet another feat by a filmmaker who has notched a few of them. He’s in that holy trinity of modern directors right alongside P.T. Anderson and Christopher Nolan — auteurs whose films are so defiantly theirs. Fincher would be the first to tell you that his career started off disastrously (read on for info on the Alien 3 production), so who could have anticipated all of the success that would follow both critically and financially?
Not only did our film staff agree on a ranking of Fincher’s 11 films, we went ahead and dissected each movie, as well. The director’s career is full of highlights, curiosities, and a small serving of disasters. However, all of his films remain interesting in their own ways. We hope you’ll dive into the 8,000+ words ahead and join the conversation in our comment section below as we break down the career of the great David Fincher.
Hell, I’m gonna go ahead and read it again myself.
11. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Runtime: 2 hr. 46 min.
Press Release: The trials and tribulations of a man who ages in reverse.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormand, Tilda Swinton
Inspired Casting: Pitt is surrounded by many familiar faces here, which plays a bit like cinematic de ja vu. For reference, he co-starred with Ormand in Legends of the Fall, with Swinton in Burn After Reading, with Jason Flemying in Snatch, with Jared Harris in Ocean’s Twelve, and with Blanchett in Babel. Plus, his daughter Shiloh makes a cameo as Benjamin and Daisy’s daughter Caroline, age 2. Thanks to this film, “Seven Degrees of Brad Pitt” just got a whole lot easier.
Fincher En Vogue: While Button is not one of Fincher’s better films by any stretch, Daisy’s car accident scene may be one of his most accomplished sequences. “Sometimes we’re on a collision course and we just don’t know it,” drawls Benjamin’s voiceover, “Whether it’s by accident or by design, there’s not a thing we can do about it.” Events unfold like a train chugging along, slowly picking up speed, and then running off the tracks: if the French woman hadn’t stopped to answer the phone before hailing a taxi, and if the taxi driver hadn’t stopped to order a coffee, then the fates would not have aligned as such that the taxi would come screeching at Daisy at the exact moment she was crossing the street, effectively ending her ballet career as a ballerina in one swift, sickening crash. Obviously the pacing, editing, and seductive imagery of these shots illustrates Daisy’s agony with more visceral feeling than words ever could, which is why the visual power of film remains so enticing, and also so uniquely devastating.
Score! French composer Alexandre Desplat, known for a diverse repertoire that includes Zero Dark Thirty, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Parts 1 and 2, and several Wes Anderson films, scored Button with an 87-piece ensemble of the Hollywood Studio Symphony.
Alternate History: Early development of the film began in 1994 and resurfaced in 1998 with Ron Howard tapped to direct.
Short Story vs. Film: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story upon which Fincher’s Button is based, differs from the film in almost every way imaginable. Only Benjamin’s name, the general aspects of his aging process, and the title match the original story; the rest is completely re-written. Fitzgerald’s tale follows Benjamin from his parents’ home to a try at college to his father’s hardware store, where he meets Hildegarde Moncrief, the love interest that is Daisy in the film. He goes on to serve in the Spanish American War, then enrolls at Harvard, and comes home to find that his wife Hildegarde has moved to Italy. Eventually, he fades away as a toddler in kindergarten, unable to remember anything of his earlier life.
The Forrest Gump Connection: Doesn’t sweet, earnest, idiosyncratic Benjamin seem a bit, well, Forrest Gump-y to you? That’s because Fincher specifically sought out Eric Roth, Forrest Gump’s Oscar-winning screenwriter, to pen the script for Button.
Oscar Fail: Button led the Academy Awards race in 2009 with 13 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor in a Leading Role (seriously), but only went home with three awards in the “blatantly rush the hardworking but non-famous people off the stage with exit music” categories: Best Makeup, Best Art Direction, and Best Visual Effects.
Analysis: Despite its impressive motion-capture aging effects and lush, often breathtaking cinematography, Button is, at its core, a disappointing dud. The dialogue shoots for poetic but usually rings hollow, the actors appear lost and confused most of the time, and the story, stretching for a painful two hours and 46 minutes, is bloated about an hour too long. And while Pitt shines in the Fincher vehicles Fight Club and Se7en, his Benjamin is a bland, soggy slice of milquetoast.
10. Alien 3 (1992)
Runtime: 1 hr. 54 min.
Press Release: Ripley lands on a prison planet with no weapons … but she is not alone.
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, Charles Dance, Lance Henriksen, Danny Webb
Hey, I Know That Guy! Renowned character actor Charles Dance plays Clemens, a bald, clean-shaven, disgraced doctor who supervises-then-sleeps with Ripley on the prison planet. In the early ’90s, Dance was best known to audiences as a go-to villain, having played the heavy against Eddie Murphy and later Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Golden Child and Last Action Hero, respectively. Now, of course, he is best known for his portrayal of Tywin Lannister on HBO’s Game of Thrones. No spoilers!
Fincher En Vogue: Ripley, in full-on Christ mode, sacrifices herself to save humanity, falling in slow-motion towards a fiery end. In the Assembly Cut of the film, this somber moment isn’t interrupted by an alien bursting out of Ridley’s chest mid-fall. Seriously, go with the Assembly Cut if you’ve never seen the film in any form, even though I just spoiled the hell out of the ending.
Score! Eliot Goldenthal had a tough act to follow. James Horner’s action score dominated Aliens, and before him it was Jerry Goldsmith’s nightmarish subtleties, which perfectly underscored Alien. In his first and only time working with Fincher, Goldenthal’s score mirrors that of Goldsmith’s. Fincher was attempting to return the franchise to its suspenseful roots sans heavy artillery (hell, there are no weapons in the prison, at all). As to whether or not the score is as memorable as either earlier entry, if you asked me to hum one bar of music from Alien 3 I would be unable to do so.
Alien 3 Will Be Set on Earth…NOT! Before the official story had been agreed upon, producers rushed this teaser to theaters. It’s an effective piece of marketing: the letters slowly forming to create the title of the film, the return of the cracking egg, news of Weaver’s return, and the promise that we will discover “on Earth, everyone can hear you scream.” What a trailer! Unfortunately, it was mostly bullshit, considering the fact that the movie does not take place on Earth at all. Ripley’s clone eventually returned home in Alien: Resurrection, but real-deal Ripley never did.
Production from Hell: During the making of Alien 3, the story was constantly being re-written, and poor Fincher had to begin shooting his first movie without a finished shooting script. Despite his best efforts, the first-time director had his work taken away from him by producers, and Fincher has since disowned the film. He told the BBC in 1993: “The lesson to be learned is that you really can’t take on an enterprise of this size and scope if you don’t really have a movie like The Terminator or Jaws behind you. When Steven Spielberg comes in and says, ‘I made Jaws, the biggest grossing film of all time and I want $18 million to do Close Encounters,’ which is probably the equivalent to what we spent, it’s very nice to be able to say, ‘This is the guy who directed the biggest grossing film of all time. Sit down and shut up, and feel lucky that you’ve got him.”
Aforementioned Assembly Cut: While not officially Fincher’s cut of Alien 3, it gets pretty close. This version plays about a half hour longer, and that’s not even including alternate takes. For instance, in this version, the alien emerges from a cow instead of a dog. There is a whole subplot removed from the movie that surrounds Golic, played by the great Paul McGann (The Eighth Doctor in Doctor Who). His character believes the alien is a devil, and his fear and awe of the creature leads him to help it escape after the prisoners successfully captured it (in the movie, the alien escapes on its own). The assembly cut is definitely the better version.
Fincher on Alien 3: To The Guardian in 2009: “I had to work on it for two years, got fired off it three times and I had to fight for every single thing. No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.”
Analysis: Fincher’s probably right. Alien 3 is done in by a rushed production schedule, tampering, and an ill-fated decision to kill off fan favorites Hicks and Newt in the opening credits. However, there are a few sequences of genuine terror and suspense, and the fact that you find yourself rooting for a bunch of inmates who have committed the worst crimes imaginable is a success in itself. And, hey, it’s better than any Alien movie that followed.
09. Panic Room (2002)
Runtime: 1 hr. 52 min.
Press Release: A mother and daughter lock themselves inside a high-tech panic room during a robbery, only to discover the intruders want something that’s inside.
Cast: Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, Dwight Yoakam
Inspired Casting: Screenwriter David Koepp initially conceived the character of Burnham as “an unpleasant white collar compulsive gambler,” someone like “Humphrey Bogart in one of his less pleasant roles.” However, casting Forest Whitaker as a blue-collar family man significantly altered the characterization, resulting in a more nuanced, grounded performance when compared to Junior (Leto) the vile rich kid and Raoul (Yoakim) the psychotic drifter. And although I have never been nor ever will be a fan of Kristen Stewart, kudos to the casting directors for picking a kid who actually looks like she could be Jodie Foster’s daughter.
Fincher En Vogue: According to Fincher, the Panic Room shoot was a “logistical nightmare,” but many of these painstaking efforts do pay off, namely one sequence near the beginning of the film that took nine days to complete on set and another several months to tweak in post-production. The seamless shot, beginning with Meg (Foster) lying in bed and then down the stairs and through the walls to reveal the trio of robbers breaking in to her brownstone, is nearly three minutes long and serves as the first teaser for many more innovative shots to come.
Score! After finishing up work on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Howard Shore returned to Fincher’s camp to compose the score to Panic Room, saying that he wanted to take on a smaller project in the wake of such an epic undertaking. Shore would go on to score the next two Lord of the Rings films and the Hobbit films as well, but Panic Room, alongside Se7en and The Game, still contains some of his darkest, nerviest compositions to date.
Alternate History: Nicole Kidman was originally cast as Meg, embodying the glacial Grace Kelly type that Fincher had in mind to play the lead, and Hayden Panettiere was cast as her daughter. However, Panettiere was replaced with Stewart before filming began (Fincher found her “irritating”), and Kidman dropped out 18 days in due to a recurring knee injury she had suffered on the set of Moulin Rouge. The role of Meg was then offered to Foster, which in turn changed the character and tone of the film from cool and Hitchcockian to gritty and political.
Not My Daughter, You [Beep]: Foster is known for playing badass female characters, but from approximately 1991 to present, she has capitalized on a particular archetypal subset: a mother fiercely protecting her child. For evidence, see Little Man Tate (defending her son’s genius), Flight Plan (saving her daughter from evil Peter Sarsgaard), Carnage (waging war with the parents of a boy who hit her son with a stick), and, of course, Panic Room, in which anyone who dares to endanger her weak diabetic daughter gets a propane gas explosion in the face.
The Call Is Coming from Inside the House: Panic Room also follows a long line of home invasion thrillers with comparable plotlines: Straw Dogs, Rear Window, Lady in a Cage. But perhaps the film with the most similarities to Panic Room is 1967’s Wait Until Dark, starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman who outsmarts three criminals with personalities akin to Burnham, Junior and Raoul — one compassionate, one slick, one ruthless — breaking into her brownstone apartment.
Bills, Bills, Bills: The cost of production for Panic Room blew up to a much higher sum than anticipated — $6 million for a four-story apartment that took 15 weeks to build, over $10 million in delays from replacing Kidman and working around Foster’s pregnancy — bringing the final budget to $48 million. Upside: Sony Pictures gave David Koepp a record $4 million for his screenplay, and the film went on to gross a respectable $194.4 million worldwide.
GTFO, Patriarchy: While Foster brings the requisite amount of grit and gumption to every film she inhabits, the character of Meg could be easily described as either feminist or anti-feminist, depending on how you look at her. Although not maritally or economically tied to a man, nor dependent on a man to protect her, Meg still conveys the image of “feminized vulnerability,” as academic Jyotsna Kapur describes, replaying the trope of “diminutive white women in need of protection from outside threats.” While Meg is no Ripley on the page, Foster does try her best to imbue the role with her signature toughness, and occasionally succeeds at making Meg more than just a poorly drawn caricature.
Analysis: Occasionally harrowing, but mostly silly and overwrought, Panic Room is not the best example of Fincher’s capabilities as a director. Blame it on unfortunate production difficulties and circumstances outside his control, if you must, but his tauter (read: better) films prove that he is capable of so much more.
08. The Game (1997)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 8 min.
Press Release: What do you get for the man who has everything? A confusing game with the intention of destroying his life.
Cast: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, James Rebhorn, Deborah Kara Unger, Peter Donat
Inspired Casting: Sean Penn as Douglas’ troubled brother is pretty great. He was still on fire from his Oscar-nominated performance in 1995’s Dead Man Walking and was coming off a short string of curious roles, such as his work in Nick Cassavates’ She’s So Lovely and Oliver Stone’s U Turn, the latter hitting screens only weeks before The Game would. Needless to say, plenty of eyes were on Spicoli.
Fincher En Vogue: Throughout the film, Douglas experiences these rapid, hypnotic flashbacks to his father’s suicide, which are all shot on 8mm film. While the shift in tone is certainly to convey the idea of experiencing vivid memories, these shots when juxtaposed against Harris Savides’ crisp cinematography make for quite a jarring experience. Outside the lens, however, there’s a great attention to scenery, specifically old money. According to James Swallow’s Dark Eye: The Films of David Fincher, this was intentional as Fincher set many scenes in locations fortified with hardwood paneling and red leather. The effect is quite tangible.
Score! Fincher keeps a tight family and tagged Seven composer Howard Shore once again for The Game. There’s a lot of atmosphere and menace to his work here, but what stands out is the way he pierces his multi-layered score with minimal piano keys, recalling the likes of György Ligeti. It also goes with Fincher’s interest in taking on old money, and there’s a sense of class with each piano note that’s always undercut by strings and bass. It’s both pleasant and terrifying all at once. On screen, however, it adds to Douglas’ own insanity as the game takes more and more of his identity.
Alternate History: Somewhere in another galaxy, The Game lives on director Jonathan Mostow’s resume and stars Kyle MacLachlan and Bridget Fonda and is probably in a bargain bin of DVDs with the only special feature being “Theatrical Trailer.” Actually, MacLachlan probably would have nailed the part of Nicholas Van Orton, though it would have been something as a David Lynch production. Also in another galaxy is Fincher’s alternate vision of Jodie Foster as Christine and Jeff Bridges in lieu of Penn as Douglas’ brother Conrad. At the time, Fincher deemed Foster too big for the role (smart), and Bridges declined (not so smart). Oh well.
Classic Rebhorn: The late character actor left us early this year with a resume totaling over 100 films, television series, and plays. Amongst all of his supporting characters, however, The Game represents one of his best. As agent Jim Feingold, Rebhorn is sophisticated yet down to earth, a “suit” that you can get behind. When Douglas confronts his character at the zoo with his children in the film’s final act, Rebhorn plays the “suit dad” even better. He also gets the honor of providing all the necessary exposition of the film and one of its best closing lines: “You know, thank God you jumped, because if you didn’t, I was supposed to throw you off!” He’ll be missed.
The Game‘s Spine No. for The Criterion Collection: 627
Whatever happened to that actress who played Christine? Oh, you mean Deborah Kara Unger? She had a good run for awhile, starring in Payback alongside Mel Gibson, The Hurricane with Denzel Washington, and that icky Thirteen flick. Lately, she’s had a recurring role in the Silent Hill series, and later this year she’ll star in Brad Pitt’s WWII vehicle, Fury.
I was a teenager obsessed with sex when The Game came out, but didn’t Christine’s line about not wearing underwear seem odd? Just a little.
But a little hot, right? Okay, sure.
Analysis: It’s far-fetched and slightly longer than necessary, but The Game is a compelling thriller that twists and turns in ways that weren’t exactly predictable at the time. Michael Douglas delivers an exceptional performance, which he’d follow up with A Perfect Murder, Wonder Boys, and Traffic (not too shabby), while Penn sparkles in the film’s underbelly. The conclusion is also worth experiencing for a first time and will bring out the Joey Lawrence in you.