Wednesday, October 7, 2009

DAVID FINCHER and the Decline and Fall of Western Civilisation

David Fincher: Dark horseman of the apocalypse?

David Fincher is undoubtedly one of the most exciting directors at work today. When he first came to the attention of the world as the director of the ill-fated Aliens3, he was struggling to escape the control of the studio executives, who weren't about to let a rookie director impose his vision on a highly lucrative franchise.

The resultant mess left Fincher badly bloodied but unbowed and he took his revenge by going on to achieve the level of success with his next feature - Se7en - that guarantees creative freedom. Since then he has gone on to make two more films - Fight Club and Zodiac - that form a sort of loose trilogy, united by a common thread of an unquestionably grim and pessimistic view of the world.

While representing the greatest achievements by this formidable creative talent to date, the message throughout is undeniably nihilistic: Western Civilisation has crossed a line and is in rapid decline. They could even be described as apocalyptic. Let's take a closer look at each movie.

Se7en (1995)

Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: Andrew Klein Walker
Players: Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, R Lee Ermey

The fight between good and evil has always preoccupied artists and many of the greatest have spent their lives depicting it. With Se7en Fincher's message is clear - evil is in the ascendancy and man is in danger of losing his soul forever.

Morgan Freeman as Lt William Somerset is the old warrior in the story. He is battle weary and haunted by the thought that despite the years he has put in as a homicide detective, the never-ending war against evil is no closer to being won. If anything, evil is winning.

On the verge of retirement, he is dragged back into the fray by a murder that is puzzling in its complexity. He realises that this is no ordinary homicide and begins to feel the tendrils of panic in his heart. The knowledge that he is up against an opponent who may defy even his considerable abilities threatens to defeat him before he has even begun.

Entering the fray is David Mills, played by Brad Pitt. Mills is a relative rookie, still feisty and fresh to the fight. Unlike Somerset, Mills is a man of little imagination. He doesn't bother with the larger ramifications of these terrible deeds, but prefers to stay focused on the details of the case at hand. Together they sally forth, two white knights in search of a dragon the dimensions of which remains largely hidden from view until the final apocalyptic act.

As the full horror of the killer's plan begins to reveal itself, the detectives and their families are drawn into the web and Somerset begins to realise that they may not emerge intact. But he seems powerless to prevent the inevitable from taking place. Despite all his experience and intellect, the stage is set and the killer, known only as John Doe, has been the puppet master all along. But his warnings to Mills go unheeded and the brash young detective plunges on, until both are confronted by the bottomless depths of John Doe's insanity.

Se7en is worthy of repeated viewings for the very fine performances of its central cast, particularly the outstanding contribution by Morgan Freeman. However, even he is eclipsed by the laser-like intensity of Kevin Spacey, in his first major role. Although slight of stature and physically non-threatening, Spacey is totally believable as the serial killer.

His life's work is a statement about the condition of modern day society that will not easily be forgotten - represented by a nameless, rain-soaked city that apparently represents every large metropolis on our planet. It is among these faceless grey canyons and dirty streets where sin find its most fertile ground.

Se7en is a technical achievement of the highest order, from the now-famous opening credit sequence to the incredible detail of the set designs and the stunning cinematography. The chase scene - one of the few pieces of action in an otherwise very static film - is done with great imagination, offering startling angles, superb sound effects and brilliant editing to bring the tension to an unbearable level.

Despite its coal-dark theme and distinctly downbeat ending Se7en has been the biggest commercial success of Fincher's career, although it is arguably the lesser creative achievement than either Fight Club or Zodiac, the second and third parts of the trilogy.

Fight Club (1999)

Director: David Fincher
Screeplay: Jim Uhls
Players: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, Jared Leto, Meat Loaf

The second instalment in the great Fincher trilogy is an artistic triumph of the highest order. Taken almost word for word from the pitch-black debut novel by cult author Chuck Palahnuik, Fight Club is not so much a movie as an experience.

Released as the new millennium was about to be launched it perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the time, where young men are caught up in a world so commoditised and demeaning they have to resort to punching each other out to gain meaningful experience.

The film was so original and startling it went way over the heads of most cineplex viewers and had very little commercial success as a result. However, over the years it has gained a true cult following on DVD and is now widely acknowledged as a work of unique and twisted genius.

Packed full of impish mischief and demonic glee, it is obvious that Fincher thoroughly related to the central message of the film and took great delight in exploring every nuance of Palahnuik's ground-breaking work.

Indeed it is difficult to separate the book from the movie, so closely do they cleave to each other. So successful was he in rendering the story to celluloid that it is one of the rare instances where the movie actually improves on the book. What Fincher has done is give the story of Tyler Durden a near-perfect visual life.

And what a story it is. Many people describe the movie as 'life-changing' and the essence of the message that Palahnuik conveyed in his book can indeed be taken as a life philosophy. Its anti-consumerist stance and contempt for authority has became increasingly relevant with each passing year. Every time the world leaders gather for a G20 summit, one can almost hear the echoes of the space monkeys as they gather to spread mischief and mayhem: "his name was Robert Paulson, his name was Robert Paulson...".

Given the quality of the material they are working with, the players rise to the occasion. Brad Pitt delivers the performance of his career as Tyler Durden and in the process creates a persona that is as iconic an image in cinema history as Darth Vader. Norton and Bonham Carter are equally effective. That it is impossible to imagine anyone other than Brad Pitt, Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter in these roles is a testament to their achievement.

While Fight Club has on the surface an even darker world view than Se7en it is far less dreary, due to the script which is frequently hilarious, as well as the visual gags which appear throughout the movie.

Although Fincher obviously still believes that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, he realises that we must still laugh at the insanity around us, or risk going insane ourselves.


Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: James Vanderbilt
Players: Jake Gyllenhal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr, John Carroll Lynch, Chloe Sevigny

The final instalment in Fincher's epic dark trilogy on the decline and fall of modern civilisation differs in that it is not a work of fiction but is based on the true life events of the Zodiac killer, who hunted his victims in and around San Francisco.

The movie opens on the 4th of July 1969 with a stunning panoramic shot of fireworks over the city - an unforgettable image. From there we are introduced to the shadowy figure that is the Zodiac killer, as he brutally slays a young couple about to celebrate the occasion with some good old fashioned car sex.

The killer stays in the shadows throughout, and we never really see his face, no doubt because his true identity was never determined. As in Se7en, the evil is not brought to justice and in the end remains an active force in the world. In Fincher's eyes, there are no neat endings where the heroes prevail and sanity is restored. Despite fresh DNA evidence which was taken from one of the envelopes sent to the SF Chronicle, the killer's identity was never determined to a certainty and the case remains open to this day.

Fincher's movie is based largely on the book by Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle who became obsessed with the case. Given that the Zodiac case as depicted in the movie takes place over two decades, Zodiac does a fantastic job of conveying the frustrating and exhaustive nature of the investigation, without boring us to tears.

Unlike the fantasy world of TV shows like CSI, many cases of this nature are never solved or may take decades to close. Fincher takes us on this journey and we watch as the principal players in the Zodiac drama are forever altered by the case. Although the movie is two and a half hours long, it never feels that way.

The players are uniformly superb, in particular Jake Gyllenhal as Graysmith and Robert Downey Jr as Paul Avery, as the Chronicle's crime reporter. John Carroll Lynch gives an amazing portrayal of Robert Leigh Allen, the man whom Graysmith believes to be the killer.

A special mention must be made of the art production, which is of the highest standard in order to deliver a convincingly authentic 70s-era San Francisco. Every little detail is taken into account and Fincher's legendary perfectionism is very much evident here. Cinematography is also outstanding and the film is beautifully rendered in suitably muted tones to evoke the feel of the times (look out for the recurring cobalt blue and ochre themes).

With Zodiac Fincher reaches the very height of his considerable powers as a visual stylist and story-teller.

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