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The Curious Cynicism of David Fincher

NOTE: The following article contains spoilers for most of David Fincher’s filmography, including the recently released Mank. You have been warned.

It certainly is a curious case (of Benjamin Button) that the latest film from revered auteur David Fincher should be one that directly flies in the face of auteur theory. Mank, which will be streaming on Netflix by the time you read this, is concerned with the authorship of one of the great auteur vehicles of all time, and indeed is often referred to as the greatest film of all time: Citizen Kane. While it is undeniable that Orson Welles directed, produced, and starred in the film to tremendous effect, murkier is the delineation of labor that went into the screenplay. 

Fincher’s film, if it wasn’t clear from its chosen subject matter, seems to favor Pauline Kael’s assertion in her 1971 essay “Raising Kane” that the vast majority of the script can and should be attributed to Herman J. Mankiewicz, whereas Welles’ contributions were minimal if any. The findings in Kael’s essay have since been largely debunked, and while neither creator is alive to assert one way or another at this stage, the truth likely falls somewhere in the middle. As a story, Mank is less concerned with the film that resulted from their collaboration, and more with the events in the titular character’s life that shaped his worldview to the point where he would pen such an incendiary tale in the first place.

Netflix

There has been much debate over the validity of auteur theory, with one side suggesting that a distinctive and visionary enough director is able to assert full control over the final film and should thus be entitled full authorship, while the other side feels that this does a disservice to the innumerable performers and craftsmen who labor to bring the project to life. While there are merits to both sides, and it is certainly true that talented filmmakers have had their works both elevated and diminished depending on their collaborators, it is also true that certain directors are meticulous enough and involved enough throughout the process (not to mention influential enough to be given free rein to do so) that they are able to produce an oeuvre that is distinctively their own.

David Fincher is one such director, and indeed one of the most prolific examples of such in modern American cinema. While Fincher does not write his own films (though he is heavily involved with the scripting stage, as he is with all stages of production), there is a voice and a style that is unmistakably his, to the point where one can refer to other works as being Fincher-esque (such as Matt Reeves’ upcoming The Batman) and people will know exactly what you mean. The fact that he often works with the same collaborators, such as cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, editors Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, help to give each of his films a distinct flavor, a certain rhythm, a specific sound.

So what is it that defines Fincher’s voice, his style? One of the easiest and most frequent answers would be an unrelenting, almost morbid cynicism. It is true that the majority of his films deal with bleak, harrowing subject matter. Whether it be criminals (Panic Room), backstabbers (The Social Network), master manipulators (Gone Girl), or serial killers (Se7en, Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), there is usually some anarchic element seeking to disrupt the current order, and some opposing force attempting to combat this potential threat, whether it be visceral or existential. Often the films end with the anarchic forces proving victorious, or at the very least remaining elusive, while the forces of order tend to find themselves either corrupted or otherwise compromised. Even his lightest film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (which is something of a tonal outlier), directly deals with the inevitability of death and the different paths we all take to get there.

‘The Social Network’ Directed by David Fincher Cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth

But is Fincher so easy to pin down? Is he really all doom and gloom? While he certainly doesn’t shy away from exploring the darkest depths that people will sink to, his films could hardly be described as mere exploitation. He is not content to merely depict how terrible the world can be, like a Rob Zombie or an Eli Roth. For starters, his films are often bitingly humorous. Fight Club, viewed in the right mindset, could easily be considered a comedy, albeit a very dark one. The Social Network is chock-full of Aaron Sorkin’s trademark snappy dialogue, with lines that are every bit as funny as they are eviscerating. Zodiac employs several montages that are played to comedic effect, amplifying the frustration of its protagonists’ increasingly fruitless manhunt until you can’t help but laugh at the impossibility of their struggle. And Mank takes numerous opportunities to indulge in its central writer’s razor-sharp wit, not to mention his frequently drunken escapades.

Yet there is a deeper layer to Fincher’s work that is often overlooked. He may be cynical about his characters and the worlds they inhabit, and by extension the real world that has inspired them, but he is also hopeful. Not optimistic, mind you. His is a measured, calculated hopefulness, one that sees the world both as it is and as it could be. And though, on the surface, many of his films seem to conclude with the forces of darkness “getting away with it”, so to speak, there is almost always an unspoken feeling that just because things are bad now, doesn’t meant they don’t have the potential to get better. It doesn’t mean that they will, and in all likelihood they may not. But he cares about his characters, and so does his audience, and even in the face of seeming defeat, there is that kernel of hope that they may still turn things around, even if the audience doesn’t get to see it.

Fight Club may end with Project Mayhem completing their mission to blow up the credit card companies, but it also ends with the protagonist purging Tyler’s destructive influence from his mind, and embarking on a potential romance with Marla. Zodiac may not end with the killer being caught or arrested, but by the time we get to the credits the various investigators have put together enough information that Graysmith can look him in the eyes and feel confident that it’s him. By the end of The Social Network, Mark may have alienated all of his friends and lost all of his lawsuits on his way to becoming the world’s youngest billionaire, but he’s also grown enough to potentially reconnect with the girl who inspired him to create Facebook in the first place. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s final moments may depict the dissolution of Lisbeth and Mikael’s relationship (setting up a sequel that tragically never came to be), but their collaboration still resulted in stopping a decades-long cycle of killers, and reuniting a broken old man with his long-lost granddaughter.

None of these are great victories in the grand scheme of things, but they’re enough to indicate that underneath all the misery and conflict that the films have been rife with, there’s a basic element of hope to keep things from ending on too much of a downer note. Because Fincher, for all of his morbid fascinations and proclivity for depicting violence, is not a downer. He sees the world as rotten and broken and filled with the worst kind of human beings doing the worst kinds of things to each other. But that doesn’t mean he thinks that redemption is impossible. No doubt he would view this appraisal of his work as facile, but the interpretation is there, should one wish to read into it.

MANK (2020) Courtesy of Netflix

This all, of course, brings us back to Mank. Like The Social Network, this is the tale of a creator who sees through the façade of society, who feels shackled by a system that he also desperately wants to be accepted by. Both Mank and Mark see the hypocrisy of the worlds they inhabit, and aren’t afraid to call them out, even at the risk of losing everyone close to them. Both struggle under the weight of tortured brilliance, and fight to retain control of creations that are inspired by their distinctive worldviews. The story of Mank concludes, as it did in real life, with the writer getting credit, recognition, and an Oscar for his work, despite never fully rejoining the Hollywood society that was ultimately too shallow for him anyway.

It’s easy to see a lot of Fincher in the characterization of Mankiewicz. Fincher has openly bristled against his displeasure of having to work around pleasing studio executives when, like Mank, he really just wants to focus on the story. Neither are willing to compromise in their vision, despite so many around them begging to make things simpler, more relatable, more accessible. Both use their wit and dry humor as a defense against the ridiculousness of the systems they find themselves in, and both see the value of film as a means to combat those same systems. And now both have had an outside force (Orson Welles and Netflix, respectively) who has enabled them to create some of their best work.

This writer does not presume to understand or have in-depth knowledge of David Fincher as a person, having never met him. Outside of interviews conducted under a variety of circumstances, the main tool we have as an audience to understand why our favorite filmmakers speak to us so eloquently are the films themselves, and what we can interpret therein. Based on Fincher’s filmography, and the interpretations thus gleaned, his worldview can perhaps best be summarized by the final line of dialogue from Se7en, the first film that he considers his own:

“Ernest Hemmingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”

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Written by Myles Hughes

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