When it comes to the work of David Fincher, many seem content to just tow the party line that he is a great artist because his films look great. I don’t intend to dispute that; I do intend to add, however, that Fincher’s work remains fixed in our cultural consciousness for more than just his unique visual sensibility. While there are any number of points from which one could map out a worthwhile case for Fincher’s artistic merit, I want to focus on what I consider a theme that runs throughout Fincher’s work.
The reaction of many Internet commentators to Fincher being announced as the director of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo might be called a subconscious recognition of what I’m getting at. Most trumpeted the material as a natural fit to Fincher’s directorial style. The majority of the claims, however, rested solely on the fact that he had already made films about serial killers before, as if that was a natural prerequisite for making any other film about a serial killer (one has to wonder if the same logic would have been applied by commentators had the director of Saw had been announced as the director of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). But Fincher’s work encompasses far more than movies about serial killers, and his style extends beyond his uncanny ability to make the ugly seem beautiful. Nonetheless, there seems an implicit consensus that Seven, as with any other Fincher film, is more than its synopsis. But what animates a Fincher film beyond these elements? Part of it seems his effortless ability to elevate the macabre to pop – culture accessibility. Fincher’s films seem to function as autopsies of our darkest impulses, while his entire body of work might be considered as a post mortem of contemporary society.
The Curious Case of Benjamin lavishes its attention on the deterioration of the human body; indeed, the curious nature of Benjamin allows the film to almost constantly have one of its two main leads in senility despite covering a nearly 70 year span of their lives. Even in Benjamin’s birth, we are reminded of death. Even in his adolescence, the eventual obsolescence of our bodies is observed. Even as Benjamin grows young, the other characters in the film grow old. Fincher spent millions of dollars commissioning entirely new technology not simply to turn one of the most beautiful men in the world into Yoda, but to explore issues that seem deeply rooted in the director’s psyche.
To wit, Benjamin Button was not the first time Fincher had made use of the destruction of the flesh as a theme in his work. It appears in the allusive destruction of Jared Leto’s unabashedly “pretty” face by the narrator in a quasi-homoerotic fit of rage that is also tinged with the suggestion of jealousy.
(As a sidenote: Fincher seems to have a disdain for “pretty”, that or a paradoxical wish to destroy it by containing it. Indeed, it’s Tracy’s “pretty head” that John Doe is compelled to take and keep in a box. Is it envy or loathing that motivates Fincher? Or perhaps something more complicated?)
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Jared Leto again serves as another site of this theme in Fincher’s next film, Panic Room. The theme achieves a sustained presence in the escalating damage doled out on the bodies of the film’s criminals. By the end it is Raoul, missing fingers, teeth and the use of his legs, who becomes a metonym for this idea. In an interesting parallel to another of Fincher’s films, Raoul is motivated to murder by apoplectic rage, the same which animates David Mills in the conclusion of Seven.
Fincher does not use these visions of bodily mortification for shock or horror, however. Contrary to what some critics have claimed, Fincher is not a sadist who delights in showing the torture of his cinematic victims under the pretense of artistic license. Fight Club shows little of the impact of “Jack’s” fists striking and offers only a glimpse of the aftermath of his bloody rampage. Seven similarly shows little of the gruesome aftermath, and nothing of the acts themselves. Instead, the destruction of the body is implied, allowing the carnage to serve as sites of reflection. The grisly murder scenes function as memento mori, as invocations of the fragility of flesh.
One shrine in particular bears further mention, that of John Doe’s victim one year in the making: the child pederast in his dilapidated apartment.
The accoutrements of this temple, a canopy of air fresheners, suggests the cheap commercialization and industrialization of daily life. Here is the stink of death, the natural corollary of life, masked by mass produced, artificial scents. The centrepiece on the altar, that desiccated husk, is, I think, the director’s statement on humanity. Frightening, ugly, bounded by ideology and bound by its zealots. Unable to die, yet unable to live.
The capstone of the scene is the message scrawled in feces over the head of the victim’s bed: sloth. The placement and its biblical context recalls the inscription above the gates of Hell in Dante’s Inferno (a work mentioned throughout this film): abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
The irony of the sin is that our bodies are naturally inclined to indolence–a disinclination to exertion is their ultimate fate. Fincher reminds us of this eventuality in Benjamin Button by bookending the film with the Cate Blanchett’s otherwise spirited character bed-ridden and gasping for breath. By loading Blanchett’s typical stunning features under a heavy layer of prosthetics and old-age makeup, it is as if Fincher was indirectly commenting on his other site of bed-ridden death in Seven (indeed, it’s the only other time a scene of a bed-ridden character occurs in Fincher’s entire filmography).
This image of a zombie-like wraith who refuses to die recurs throughout Fincher’s works, from Edward Norton’s insomniac in Fight Club, the heavily bludgeoned father in Panic Room, to the broken-jawed psychopath of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Even Alien 3 is sustained by this image in the doomed figure of Ellen Ripley, her body a temple to a very different vision of necrosis–though perhaps it’s unwise to include it since Fincher is loath to even admit this film’s existence.
The image of the living dead even serves as the final shot of Zodiac, a film already filled with characters trapped in this paradoxical state of dead life (a similar finale is used with Mark Zuckerberg nearly catatonic at his computer). Consumed with the search for a man who makes death his living (another echo to Seven), these characters are precluded from living normal lives. Moreover, the ostensible main character, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), prevents himself from living. His obsession with the Zodiac becomes something of a prolonged suicide, professional as well as personal. Or perhaps the film suggests it is in our nature to destroy, if not others then at least ourselves.
Both of these impulses are found in David Mills’ final act in Seven. When David shoots John Doe in the head, it’s as if the bullet had blown away his brain too; afterward he’s a catatonic wretch, unable to speak or even blink. One almost wonders if Somerset’s statement early on in the film to David might have served as a cryptic warning: “You actually asked to be assigned here.”
The echelon of justice is reduced to impotency by man’s inhumanity to man. The necrotic nightmare of John Doe’s third victim (technically his first) recurs in the image of David sitting placidly in the back of the police car by the film’s conclusion. And the doctor’s grim pronouncement of the pederast’s fate is recalled: “He’s endured about as much pain and suffering as anyone I’ve encountered, give or take, and he still has hell to look forward to.” It is here that Fincher’s directorial sensibilities achieves its most terrifying realization in what must be his parable of humanity: if this is not hell, what horrors still remain?
There’s more to be said on this topic, but I think I’ve said enough. Feel free to add to the discussion in the comments below.
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