A Place of Unhappy, Seething Things
The Netherworld of the cinema of David Fincher
I feel that David Fincher might be a bit pessimistic in the way he views the world.
He is, but I feel that way too.
How could you not take a stance that David Fincher is pessimistic given the makeup of every one of his films cinematography and story content? Fincher, more so than any other director I have seen, has created a cinematic netherworld in which oppressive conspiracy and common evil of everyday people are a given fact of life.
The cinematic netherworld of David Fincher is a world much like our own. Here is his filmography for reference:
- Alien 3
- The Game
- Fight Club
- Panic Room
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- The Social Network
- The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo
- House of Cards Chapter 1 and Chapter 2
- Gone Girl
For all of our sakes, let’s just pretend we didn’t see Alien 3 up at the top there.
Better yet, don’t watch Alien 3 at all.
Benjamin Button is also complicated since it’s a picaresque VERY much unlike Fincher’s other films. But the rest of his filmography is remarkably consistent in tone and style,
So, we’ll start with SE7EN, or Seven since I’m sick of spelling a word with a number in the middle.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, Seven is the story of two detectives (Brad Pitt & Morgan Freeman) chasing down a serial killer named John Doe (???-It’s supposed to be a surprise). John Doe themes his kills after the Seven Deadly Sins. It’s actually a fairly straightforward detective story, albeit with a gruesome nihilistic twist at the end.
It also is the first to display this cinematic netherworld in a meaningful and coherent way (Alien 3 does portray the tone that Fincher comes to perfect, but the story of the film is an absolute mess). The city that Seven takes place in is dark and dirty, and it’s always raining or about to rain or just finished raining. This is despite the fact there is a harsh desert around 20 minutes away from the city.
It turns out that this will be a theme in Fincher’s filmography. It’s most apparent in Fight Club’s coloration.
Fight Club is ever so lightly toned to a pale green color, much like under the light found in a room lit by florescent lamps. If you’ve ever stood or sat in a room lit by fluorescents, you’ll know that eventually you’ll start to feel a little nauseous or at least “off.” Which is what Fight Club intends to show in in the portrayal of the netherworld: a world where the Narrator is profoundly unhappy to the point that he creates an alternate personality, Tyler Durden, to cope with his dissatisfaction with the world and perhaps change it.
The change in this world is somewhat signified as the film’s coloration becomes a cooler bluish hue in the grand finale when Tyler is destroyed. He’s still definitely unsure about his future, but he’s much more secure about himself.
Out of all the Fincher films, Fight Club appears to have a fairly optimistic ending in the sense that Fincherian optimism is a weird sort of positive fatalism. You succeed in a Fincher film by not letting the world drive you insane or you accept who you are in the world.
Which is why the villains of his films are so compelling. Excluding The Social Network (where I believe Zuckerberg is technically the antagonist despite being the main character) Fincher’s villains are vice incarnate, they are exceedingly greedy, impossibly narcissistic or outright psychopathic.
There is room for redemption for these villains, like Forrest Whittaker’s character in Panic Room, when he lets who he essentially is as a person guide his judgement, as such accepting himself. But more often than not, the antagonists don’t realize or care they did anything wrong and in a sense overcome the protagonist. Amy in Gone Girl gets exactly what she wants following a small adjustment to her master plan, and Mark Zuckerberg really doesn’t learn anything from the lawsuit and the destruction of his friendship with Eduardo. It’s almost like a messed up self help book, if you are uncertain in a Fincher film, your life will be destroyed.
But the self-help metaphor relates back to the netherworld idea. Fincher’s world is a dark reflection of our world, so the fatalism of it is accordingly a dark reflection as well. Since self acceptance is a weirdly important part of our pop culture, it’s actually pretty funny that Fincher makes it a life-or-death ordeal in his films.
His world is this dark satire and the vision is very clear throughout his film. And fatalism is a powerful emotion in a very uncertain era of filmmaking, so powerful that Fincher was able to overturn the essential optimism of Aaron Sorkin in The Social Network.
The cinematic netherworld of David Fincher is essentially his, and hopefully it is something we will continue to rely on in a changing world.