In Gone Girl, David Fincher’s cold perfectionism makes black humour out of tabloid shocks – and may even complete a media-age revenge trilogy
by Philip Matthews
Three words to describe the David Fincher film Gone Girl: cynical, topical and ridiculous. Ridiculous isn’t a negative. Some reviewers of Gone Girl have latched onto critic Anne Billson’s idea of the “preposterous thriller”, the dominant form in the post-Basic Instinct/Fatal Attraction world, but which Billson traces further back still, to the greatest and craziest thriller of them all, Vertigo. Think about it. If you were to murder your wife, would Gavin Elster’s plan in Vertigo really be the easiest and most fool-proof way of going about it? But in the hands of a master, it didn’t matter, or the absurdity became a symptom of its deeper surreality.
Ditto the elaborate schemes of Amy (Rosamund Pike) in Gone Girl. At times the film feels like over-extended Hitchcock, as Hitch would surely have made it both tighter and funnier. Tighter how? It’s unlikely he would have kept both of Amy’s escape plots – the cheap motel with the white trash couple and the luxury lakeside house with creepy Desi, played by Neil Patrick Harris. Which would have gone? Probably the white trash motel. The Desi material is a stronger revelation of Amy’s ruthlessness and cruelty, and it had a degree of sexual menace and violence that Hitch would have related to (in this Playboy interview, Fincher talked about Pike’s visual similarity to Chinatown-era Faye Dunaway, but others have seen her obvious, icy resemblance to Tippi Hedren in The Birds and Marnie). One more thing about Desi: in this Film Comment interview, Fincher describes Desi as “like Clare Quilty”, Humbert Humbert’s rival in Lolita – “he sort of doesn’t exist in reality”. Which is an astute observation given the strange place that the Desi character occupies in the story (and it helps us rethink the Nick/Amy relationship as well).
The preposterous thriller has been pushed further out by Pedro Almodovar, Brian De Palma and Paul Verhoeven. Rather than resembling a long and slightly humourless Hitchcock thriller, Gone Girl is really more like a sane De Palma movie. Arguably Fincher’s solid film-making values, commercial nous and skill with actors keep Gone Girl on this side of sanity. Fincher is a highly accomplished visual director who is able to do the flashy stuff when he wants to – see the impossible camera movements in Panic Room – but is more skilled than you probably realise at the ordinary stuff, as this useful video essay at Atlantic Monthly demonstrates.
Gone Girl is also, like his previous two films, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as seemingly mainstream as it gets in terms of subject matter and audience appeal. All three were adapted from bestsellers, one of which was the tell-all story of the world’s biggest social media platform. In the same era, he has produced and directed episodes of Washington DC insider drama, House of Cards, which has played like the cynical, pessimistic flip-side of the liberal, hopeful The West Wing, and he plans more television, including a version of the British series Utopia. If Fincher really is making films for “perverts”, as he often says, there must be millions of them, hiding in plain sight.
How do you explain his incredible knack for topicality? Panic Room, The Social Network and Gone Girl are really forms of journalism and as such they lend themselves to essays and think pieces. More specifically, David Koepp’s screenplay for Panic Room was inspired by news stories, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network adapted Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires and Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, which she adapted herself, had its genesis in the sensational true story of Scott Peterson, who murdered his pregnant wife in 2002 (it was all there: the missing wife, the public appeal, the doubting in-laws and the younger woman). Two other Fincher films – Zodiac and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – were adapted from books written by journalists, the first a memoir of a long investigation and the second an idealised fiction loosely based on the real stories Stieg Larsson worked on. It may be meaningful that Fincher’s own father was a journalist for Life magazine.
But within this filmography, there are some anomalies. Fight Club was adapted from a cult novel and became accidentally topical as a pre-millennial anxiety film that would have been impossible to make after September 2001 (it found a strange and peaceful beauty in the image of collapsing American skyscrapers). But Fight Club still remains topical – this Indiewire blogger even wonders if its interest in violent male resentment somehow anticipated “gamer-gate”, whatever that is. His first film, Alien 3, was someone else’s project and Fincher is on record saying that making it was “an absurd and obscene daily battle” and that no one hated it more than him (not even Vincent Ward?). His second, Se7en, was 90s pop nihilism done better than anyone else did it, and The Game was a preposterous thriller that turned itself inside out. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, adapted from F Scott Fitzgerald by Forrest Gump screenplay writer Eric Roth, is a harder one to place – and it’s the only Fincher film I’ve actively disliked.
So, Scott Peterson is in there, but for us, Ben Affleck as Nick in Gone Girl is initially Oscar Pistorius, perhaps OJ Simpson, maybe even Clayton Weatherston. Is Affleck right for this, though? I think so. It has something to do with a movie-star aloofness co-existing with an urge to be liked for more than just his movie star good looks – to be liked for his mind and his liberal politics, but lacking the appeal of a George Clooney or Matt Damon, for whom those public positions come more readily. Affleck is the ordinary guy who never seems at ease.
As Pistorius shows, the potentially charming and self-satisfied bad husband is almost a stock media character. As Fincher says in this Telegraph interview, viewers “don’t want to be charmed by someone who might have hacked his wife up and put her in the crawlspace”. But Fincher has never recoiled from making movies with thoroughly unlikeable lead characters and most of us like Gone Girl’s support actors more, particularly Kim Dickens as cop Rhonda Boney and Tyler Perry as lawyer Tanner Bolt. We could have done with more of Tanner Bolt and the borderline satire of the world of talk-show confessions and last-minute exclusives he inhabits (from now on, we should also picture all media training sessions as being just like the one in which Bolt throws gummy bears at Nick until he gets his remorseful lines and facial expressions right). Other film-makers might have encouraged a character like Bolt to be pushed towards ridiculousness. Instead, Fincher makes him almost the moral centre of the film.
Gone Girl started with a news story and became a novel about a journalist written by a laid-off magazine writer who put all her status anxieties about staying afloat into the story, as well as writing dialogue that was snarky enough to be lines in the glib magazine she used to work for (Entertainment Weekly). That “cool girl” list, which Flynn both resents and takes seriously as a cultural meme, could easily be an outline for a magazine piece. Fincher keeps it on the border of open satire and the characters are suitably heartless. Nothing is convincingly real but that doesn’t matter – these are movie people in movie settings with magazine problems. Nothing that Fincher and Flynn say about modern marriage as “collective narcissism” struck me as true or important and Amy’s end point seemed like a grotesque and ambiguous feminism, designed only to be argued over. Remember the TV series The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil from back in the 1980s? That probably inspired a ton of “what do men and women really want?” think pieces too, much as Fatal Attraction did around the same time. Depending on where you sit, Gone Girl is simultaneously misogynistic and feminist, possibly racist (this essay) and impossible to consider as anything other than a comedy.
Amidst all the internet thinking about Gone Girl, maybe the best, or most original, is by Donnie Darko writer and director Richard Kelly, who first fell for Fincher’s work as a teenage MTV viewer, back when Fincher made a living by pouring noir rain all over Aerosmith. Kelly’s essay, “Gone Girl and Eyes Wide Shut: A Study of Psychopathy in the Heteronormative Patriarchal Occult”, is at his tumblr. As the remarkable title suggests, he explores Gone Girl’s imaginary links to the final Kubrick film – and Fincher’s own Kubrick-ness is already well known. And didn’t we talk about Lolita before? And if Gone Girl is Fincher’s Eyes Wide Shut, is Fight Club therefore his Clockwork Orange? Among other things, the Kelly essay reminds us that no one really had a clue what was going on in Eyes Wide Shut.
But back to the topic. Kelly writes: “In the end, Gone Girl isn’t an evisceration of marriage – it’s an evisceration of greed and narcissism as the driving motivation of psychopathy within a horrid, unholy marriage.” As an attack on greed, the film is in good company – it’s there with Fight Club, The Game, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and, of course, Se7en. You could say greed and pride.
Read a few interviews with David Fincher and you soon learn that he is not just surprisingly funny – as in this Guardian transcript from 2009 – but that he is also very good at contextualising his own work, drawing back into film history. The Faye Dunaway comment is just one example. As far back as Se7en, Fincher was already thinking about where he and his films might sit – he described that one as the kind of small film that William Friedkin might have made after The Exorcist. The 1970s keeps recurring as a reference point. Se7en may have been hailed for its noirish stylings and 40s lighting – everything looks grimy, yellowed by cigarette smoke – but this was a dystopian 70s story in an apocalyptic city, although Fincher had to wait a decade, until Zodiac, to evoke the 70s more literally. Like the suicidal Paul Schrader who wrote Taxi Driver, Se7en writer Andrew Kevin Walker poured everything he hated about living in New York in the 1980s into the screenplay. Fincher famously loved the pessimism of Walker’s screenplay, going for the ending that had struck almost everyone else as unfilmable, rather than the 13th more uplifting rewrite Walker had done to please some studio gatekeeper.
I can still remember the impact. Se7en came at the tail end of that 90s series of gimmicky serial killer shockers – The Silence of the Lambs, Kalifornia, Natural Born Killers. No one expected much from yet another one. Brad Pitt was a bad omen. So was “from the director of Alien 3”. The black cop on the verge of retirement paired with the young white hothead was already familiar to us from Lethal Weapon. It rained constantly but it was movie rain. The gloom seemed pretentious, as did all that stuff about the seven deadly sins (hunting for a killer with a library card?), which felt like a crass, literal interpretation of the pseudo-Biblical rage of Travis Bickle. But then Kevin Spacey appeared, with his depressed affect and heartless detachment, and you knew that this exercise in serial killer gimmickry was an extraordinary one. There was the long ending in the car and the – no, it’s not topical – righteous beheading.
Most of all it told you about Fincher’s conviction, even if it was just a determination to make the audience feel as bad as possible. On the blu-ray release of Se7en, Fincher talks about the deleted scenes, including an especially bloody variation on the “pride” killing. His reaction says a lot about his approach to movie gore and violence versus the real-life kind: “I go, it’s a movie, what are they trying to tell me? A lot of people get really worked up by [blood], really offended.”
Or as he said to Amy Taubin in 1996: “At the premiere in New York, I could just feel that people were stunned. I guess I’m just a warped fuck, but I never saw it that way.”
Nearly 20 years on, most of Se7en’s shocks have been absorbed. You can see serial killer gimmickry any night of the week on television: CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds, The Mentalist. There is always the devious master plan, the psychopath with his urge to get caught, the guy who works in the morgue giving us exposition. But there is still that key difference, the incredible horror of Se7en’s ending, softened just slightly by a coda in which a mute Pitt is driven away and Freeman ruminates some more on this fallen world.
The Game was going to be Fincher’s second film but Brad Pitt’s availability made Se7en second and The Game third. Again, expectations were low. How were we feeling about Michael Douglas by 1997? How tired were we of Douglas as the stressed white guy undone by hostile social forces? There was Fatal Attraction, Disclosure, Basic Instinct, Falling Down (in three of those movies, “hostile social forces” were really just women). But the overturning of a perfect life, even if it was just as a game, looked ahead to the economic anxiety in Gone Girl, just as Deborah Cara Unger’s Christine in The Game is a precursor of Rosamund Pike’s no less sullen Amy. There are games and clues and a sense that a man is being destroyed for someone else’s amusement. There are overt Hitchcock references too – Vertigo in particular, and not just because we are on the streets of San Francisco.
In the 2003 edition of Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan … And Beyond, Robin Wood argues that The Game is a disaster that was almost a near-masterpiece, destroyed by its trick ending. “If you forget its last 10 minutes ever happened, you have a fascinating update of film noir,” Wood wrote. Fincher has come round to that view, which was expressed to him at the time by Cean Chaffin, his partner and producer. As he says in the Playboy interview: “She was extremely vociferous when she said, ‘Don’t make The Game … In hindsight, my wife was right. We didn’t figure out the third act, and it was my fault.”
Others make a case for The Game as an overlooked Fincher classic. David Sirota in Salon in 2012 went as far as calling it Fincher’s best work. The notion that it is “a prescient parable” of the financial crisis, and an unofficial Wall Street sequel, is appealing, especially given Gone Girl’s interest in the same boom-bust economy. “In the vernacular of Occupy Wall Street, you get to watch a 1 percenter crack under the weight of 99-percent problems — a process Fincher deliberately suffuses with class resentment,” Sirota writes.
Fight Club? As per the instructions, let’s not talk about Fight Club.
With its confined setting and prowling camera, the ridiculously suspenseful Panic Room is still the most overtly Hitchcock-like film that Fincher has made. With Conrad W Hall, son of cinematography’s “prince of darkness”, Fincher dreamed up playful, impossible camera tricks that could only be done digitally, and equally playful allusions to Rear Window. There is a remarkable trick 15 minutes in when the camera pulls away from the sleeping Jodie Foster, goes through a bannister, descends to the lowest floor of the house, where we catch a glimpse of Forest Whitaker on the other side of a window, about to break in, and then goes into the lock of a door. As Fincher has said, the subjective camera is for him a non-human presence, and it is one of the reasons that, other than on Se7en, he has seldom used hand-held, which suggests a human viewer to the audience.
The opening titles of Panic Room are modelled on North by Northwest and it’s a night film, as under-lit at times as Zodiac, limited largely to cold blues and greys. The technical craft is meticulous, and a coolness and polish that was developed here has been his signature ever since. There is a new focus on contemporary technology – security cameras, in particular – that has been repeated in what I think of as Fincher’s media-age trilogy, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl. What could the detectives in Se7en have done with security cameras and the internet, rather than torches and library cards?
Panic Room is a status anxiety film of sorts, too. What if you found the “perfect” apartment only to have your life immediately disrupted by three guys who could have stepped out of The Treasure of Sierra Madre? The same fears in Gone Girl: what if your comfortable life was taken from you?
Panic Room is Fincher’s shortest film, at 112 minutes (it’s the only one to come in under two hours). The next two were among his longest. Zodiac is fact-based, as we would probably not accept it as fiction. Which is worse: the pessimistic ending of Se7en or the inconclusive open ending of Zodiac? Following Robert Graysmith’s lead, Fincher and writer James Vanderbilt identify Arthur Leigh Allen as the likely Zodiac killer but he died before any charges could be laid. The film is unrushed and everything takes as long as Fincher needs it to; structurally, it is unconventional, with the killings at the front and an increasingly hopeless investigation dominating the second half, without a resolution.
Thanks in large part to the shooting by the late Harris Savides (who also shot The Game), Zodiac is an eerie and weirdly beautiful film, both detailed and dreamlike – in cinemas, there was softness in its dark digital images. There is CGI work that is far from obvious (the site of the taxi driver murder is green screen, not location), looking ahead to further unshowy use in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network, where one actor (Armie Hammer) became the Winklevoss twins. Or was that Winklevi?
Zodiac is an obsessive and thorough film about obsession and thoroughness, with Fincher deeply interested in process. He is determined that you know that the film is based on actual case files and letters, boxes of documents and endless clippings. The credit sequence follows a letter as it makes its way through a San Francisco newspaper building, eventually reaching an editorial meeting. I imagine journalists love this movie at least in part because it shows how often the work can be unheroic and inconclusive. The killer stops being interesting and no one writes any more stories about him, but he becomes a subject independent of the news, inspiring the Scorpio killer in Dirty Harry – a story settled much more conclusively. Overall, it’s a film about the gulf between the reality of killers and their movie depictions. Alarmingly, it has nothing at all to say about the killer and why he does it.
Perfectionist and paranoid are good words to use for Zodiac, and for the personality of its unofficial investigator, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). It’s all about codes and pattern-seeking. The same thoroughness became a problem for Fincher in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which seemed to be about little more than its technical accomplishment. There is also something of Gone Girl in the way that the crime narratives in Zodiac are managed in public, right down to a TV phone-in with an expert. But maybe the difference is about the times: the late 60s of Zodiac gave us flamboyant lawyer Melvin Belli (played by Brian Cox, possibly impersonating the Belli we saw in Gimme Shelter); the present of Gone Girl gives us competing grief porn interviewers Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) and Sharon Schieber (Sela Ward).
I said earlier that the last three films feel like a media-age trilogy, in part because of stories and themes, and in part because of look: Jeff Cronenweth is cinematographer on all three films, having also done Fight Club. All three have been presented as investigations. In Gone Girl, Nick investigates his wife, the police investigate Nick and the audience investigates Nick and Amy. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a frozen noir about investigative journalism and hacking, with Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander an avenging feminist to rival the more complicated Amy in Gone Girl, the less complicated Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) in Panic Room or even Kate Mara (sister of Rooney) as Zoe Barnes in House of Cards. But still, the film seemed largely redundant. The Social Network is an investigation into the mystery of Mark Zuckerberg’s personality, with Zuckerberg played as a petulant perfectionist by Jesse Eisenberg. Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin clearly dislike the privileged Harvard world as much as Zuckerberg did, and the Fincher character he most resembles is the equally sad, lonely Zoe Barnes, just as desperate to fit into a world that excludes her. Like Salander, Zuckerberg builds a wall around himself with “social” technology. Of course, The Social Network is yet another Fincher movie about codes and patterns. It also marked the start of Fincher’s inspired collaboration with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as composers of cold electronic scores that darken the moods even more – but of course Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails, as remixed by Coil, were key to the more lurid effect of Se7en. The harsh electronic sound effects during that important Neil Patrick Harris moment in Gone Girl are suitably startling. The sound designer since Se7en has been Ren Klyce, who Fincher describes – no surprise – as being “insane” about getting things right.
It all builds up to a picture of Fincher’s control and perfectionism. And we still haven’t talked about Fincher and actors. Brad Pitt has worked with him three times and has arguably never been better than he was in Fight Club. Morgan Freeman’s performance in Se7en is still the ultimate Morgan Freeman performance (don’t say Shawshank, ever). Ditto for Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network. Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart were especially impressive in Panic Room when you consider that nothing in David Koepp’s screenplay said anything substantial about the characters of the mother and daughter.
But why is it that some of the worst acting in Fincher movies is in his best film, Zodiac? Gyllenhaal never seemed to find the character of Robert Graysmith, and he lacks the gravitas it needs – had Fincher actually made that film in the 70s, he would probably have used someone older, like Gene Hackman in The Conversation or Warren Beatty in The Parallax View. If Gyllenhaal seems pallid and boyish, Robert Downey Jr as journalist Paul Avery is a florid caricature of a drunken loudmouth. He’s impossible to take seriously and it would be a pity if that performance was Avery’s memorial as he did good work (other than the Zodiac killer stories, he co-wrote an excellent book about the Symbionese Liberation Army called The Voices of Guns). Fincher has talked about how his famous multi-take method, up to as many as 60 takes of some scenes, or 99 in the case of The Social Network, failed to work on Gyllenhaal. Downey Jr reportedly said that the Zodiac set was “a gulag”. It sounds like a version of Hitchcock’s famously contemptuous treatment of actors and it is a rare thing to encounter in a commercial cinema that so venerates the star (in this fascinating round-table interview with Charlie Rose, Rosamund Pike says that Fincher would get five hours of footage a day on Gone Girl – that’s a lot).
Of course, Fincher doesn’t turn up to work hoping to be liked by actors. As he said in that Playboy interview: “If you didn’t get hugged enough as a kid, you won’t find what you’re looking for from me.”
He was a little more conciliatory towards the warm props in the Guardian interview, while still expressing his need to be in control and to experiment when necessary on the humans he puts in front of the camera: “This is the whole reason we’re here – we’re here to do what’s in front of the camera. And I find that actors – some people resent it and go, ‘My best stuff was when I had a lot of energy after my mochaccino and now my energy’s gone’, but a lot of actors work it out in their heads, they figure it out and have an idea of what they’re going to do. I can see that and I like to move past that, to where they’ve forgotten why they came, or who they are.”