Tag: david fincher

Zodiac


Zodiac (2007)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A deliberate sidestepping of overt action is the strategy director David Fincher employs in “Zodiac,” a true crime thriller surrounding the hunt for the Zodiac killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area from 1969 to 1971. Highly intelligent, meticulous, and efficient, at times the picture embodies the texture of a documentary in the way it dares to break away from the expected plot and dramatic parabola. What matters is information, how it is presented, and what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from them. What results is a film for a select audience: those who are tickled by the act of looking through a microscope and noting the beautiful, horrifying, surprising details of a specimen. It is not for viewers who wish to be entertained by ostentatious shootouts and car crashes where the bad guy drops dead in the final act. In fact, the climax consists simply of two people looking at each other in the eye, denoting common understanding.

Observe its use of violence. It is rapid, matter-of-fact, making a point to show how excruciating it is to get stabbed and shot. Notice how slow motion is used. Attention is not at the point of contact between weapon and flesh—as horror films tend to do—but on facial expressions of the victims. There is no score playing in the background when a person is being assaulted or murdered which makes the whimpering, the crying, the begging for help all the more deafening. Take note, too, how the victims’ desperation can be felt even after killing ends. The violence is meant to be ugly, traumatizing, and sad. Our sympathy is always with the injured or dying person, never the killer. These are designed precisely so that we wish for the Zodiac to get caught—even though we already know he never was.

The picture is an excellent procedural that brings to mind Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men.” We follow three men who dare to stare into the eyes of evil: San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), and SF police inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). We experience their day-to-day interactions with colleagues; following—sometimes overstepping—rules and regulations; wrestling with bureaucracy. There is excitement in the rhythm of their workspaces. Downey Jr., Gyllenhaal, and Ruffalo deliver terrific, naturalistic performances. They have a habit of inviting us to question what it is they are thinking at any given moment.

Evil stares right back at these figures, however, and we watch their lives unravel throughout the course of twenty-two years: erosion of one’s physical and mental health, deteriorating relationships with family, coming to terms with one’s limitations as an investigator. There is a sense of surrender during the last third in particular. So many years have passed, people who were most enthusiastic to catch the killer then now just want to move on. Even the person who chooses to carry on the torch is forced to wonder at times whether his actions are still worth it. These are characters worth following not only because they are good at their jobs, getting to the truth is who they are.

Despite numerous details surrounding each murder (especially intriguing are scenes that allow us to walk a crime scene), handwritten letters that the Zodiac sent to newspapers, a dozen witness accounts, and endless paper trails, the labyrinthine mystery is told with urgency and clarity. For example, the screenplay by James Vanderbilt does not simply tell us that a partial set of fingerprints from an otherwise extremely cautious murderer is important. It shows how it is important and why. When a piece of evidence is presented, the astute and patience writing makes a point of relating the information to the bigger picture and so we always have an appreciation of the investigation. Does a seemingly reliable evidence make sense? How so? The film wishes to engage rather than spoon-feed us.

The picture is not without a sense of humor. In between gruesome deaths and barrage of possible case-breaking information are moments of exhalation: a date gone wrong (or gone right—depending on how one looks at it), police stations not having fax machines yet and so urgent files must be sent via snail mail, a character’s obsession with animal crackers, among many others. These did not need to be in the movie—and yet they are. Fincher wishes for us to be so invested into this world that he is able to find humor amidst terrifying events. Nearly every single change in tone is pulled off beautifully.

The Game


The Game (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

It is the forty-eighth birthday of Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), a filthy rich investment banker in San Francisco, but he is far from a celebratory mood. His father killed himself when he was forty-eight and the trauma of having witnessed the suicide lingers. Conrad (Sean Penn), Nicholas’ only sibling, hands his brother a birthday present. On the card is a name of a company, “Consumer Recreation Services” (CRS), and right below it is a telephone number. With a sly smile, Conrad claims it is the best thing that has ever happened to him and he insists that Nicholas call the number.

The premise of “The Game,” written by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, scratched at the deepest layers of my curiosity. The first half is very strong as it is dedicated solely on our protagonist trying to figure out what CRS is exactly and what services it offers. However, the latter section is less engaging as it leans on combing through typical thriller elements like having to run from people with guns. And yet despite this, the myriad twists and turns come right out of left field. As an in-the-moment experience, the strands demand to be untangled.

Its title refers to a game but it is vague in terms of which party is supposed to be having fun. If I were Nicholas and I found a creepy wooden doll on my driveway, I would have called the company immediately and informed them that I would like to quit the game. But not Nicholas. As a man of wealth and power, he seems almost drawn to the dark turns. Douglas does a good job in allowing the pleasure his character feels to be translucent. Because of this subtlety, it is communicated that maybe Nicholas has not taken part in something this exciting for a long time. Though he suspects that the game might be dangerous, it might be worth seeing it through.

One of the most interesting scenes takes place in CRS. There, Nicholas is able to speak with a representative named Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn). Nicholas asks to be explained to him the nature of the game. Jim circumvents the request and simply tells him that the game is specifically tailored for each person. Nicholas does not like this answer. He asks another question. Another roundabout answer. Something does not feel right. There is tension in the push-and-pull between the two.

Chases and shoot-outs are less fun and intriguing. They seem off tonally; it feels as though I were watching another psychological thriller with half a brain. Furthermore, we are subjected to lines like, “You’re the only one I can trust!” For a smart character like Nicholas, it just comes off dopey. Does it not occur to him that at that point in time, no one is to be trusted? Has he not learned anything from the terrible things that just happened to him? Certainly these scenes should have been excised in order to allow better flow.

By the time the ending comes, I was still interested in how the story will end but I felt somewhat exhausted by the twists. They are good twists—surprising—but the irregular pacing of the second half has taken its toll on what should be a lean, tightly controlled thriller. Directed by David Fincher, “The Game” looks great with its brooding darkness and the performances have layers. However, the execution of the two halves proves that giving birth to an ace thriller is not child’s play.

Gone Girl


Gone Girl (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Based on the novel and screenplay by Gillian Flynn, “Gone Girl” is a mystery-thriller that gets under the skin and into the bone, at times tickling the brain with its twists and turns alongside occasionally amusing one-liners, which makes the two-hour-and-thirty-minute peek into the lives of a suburban Missourian couple worthwhile. It is like watching a “Best Of” episodes of Marc Cherry’s “Desperate Housewives” only the film is directed by David Fincher which means darker elements are amplified and the ironic touches concentrated.

But the film is let down a bit by its unusual and ultimately ineffective casting of some supporting players. Neil Patrick Harris sticks out like a sore thumb as a former flame of Amy (Rosamund Pike) who may or may not have something to do with her sudden disappearance. Although Harris attempts a mix of danger, desperation, and coy—as if his character were in on some joke—I found his interpretation of the character to be quite distracting. Because there is a lack of an effective marriage between the performer and his character, just about every time he is on screen, I felt as though I was on the outside looking in rather than being cocooned in an increasingly complex and suffocating mystery.

Another misstep in terms of casting is Casey Wilson as the self-reported best friend of the woman who has gone missing. Although she is on screen fewer times than Harris, her interpretation of the character gives the impression that Noelle is supposed to be on a set of a comedy television show but somehow has gotten lost and ended up here. Granted, Noelle is, in part, supposed to be the “village idiot” but wouldn’t it have been more interesting if the character was written dumb but played smart? Contradiction, after all, is what makes the film function on a cerebral and, to an extent, a visceral level.

Fincher allows the mystery to unspool without the expected red herrings that usually come with the mystery-thriller genre. Instead, he employs his not unfamiliar signature of summoning basic elements of a dramatic film—in this case, a marriage drama—to elevate the tension during the exposition just enough and then eventually adding a number of jigsaw pieces onto his canvas in order to arouse our suspicions and inspire us to look a bit closer. In other words, he makes movies that slowly come to life and those willing to stick through the transformation are rewarded.

Ben Affleck is spot-on as Nick, the husband who becomes a curious specimen under the media’s microscope. Nick acts strangely because although his wife has disappeared, possibly dead, he does not know how to behave when the spotlight is on him. For instance, when photographers ask him to pose and smile in front of a missing person poster, he doesn’t even think twice about following through with the request—and what it might mean for him once the one perfect snapshot is published all over the papers and shown on national television. Thus, he gives the impression that either he does not care or he is a direct culprit. Detective Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) certainly have their suspicions.

“Gone Girl” is a true cousin of Fincher’s other thrillers like “Se7en,” “The Game,” and “Zodiac.” Although never as dark as any of them, all four engage the viewers on a high level—to question not only what is really going on but also whether the final answer, or answers, is something that we really want to know. And just when we are convinced that the final layer has been peeled off completely, a movie as alive as this is already growing another stratum of skin cells, ready to be picked off.

The Collector


The Collector (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

A couple (William Prael, Diane Ayala Goldner) just got home from a night out. When the husband flipped the light switch downstairs, none of the lights turned on. His wife screamed from upstairs. The dutiful husband ran in a hurry for his wife’s aid but she seemed to be okay. The two of them found themselves in front of a menacing red box in the middle of their bedroom. On top of it was a note which stated that it was for The Collector. Based on the screenplay by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, “The Collector” unfolded curiously while maintaining a nail-biting cat-and-mouse game between Arkin (Josh Stewart), a contract handyman who needed money so that loan sharks wouldn’t hurt his wife and daughter, and the mysterious masked figure (Juan Fernández) who was kinder to bugs than people, but the answers that we so very much deserved were denied with impunity. In order for us to understand the whole picture of whatever was going on, it begged for a sequel which just won’t do. It was a shame because the film did contain moments of creativity. When Arkin realized that the mansion that he was going to steal from was filled with booby traps, the camera was almost cheeky in the way it revealed the various devices and triggers. My jaw dropped: there were at least ten different ones–overkill–and yet I wanted to laugh but couldn’t do so. I was too worried that at any second Arkin was bound to take the wrong step or touch the wrong thing and the masked man, torturing the patriarch and matriarch (Michael Reilly Burke, Andrea Roth) in the basement, would discover that someone was upstairs. Running was simply not an option especially if invisible wires could cause the knives to be ejected from hidden corners. I knew I was very involved with it because when the protagonist did get hurt, I found myself covering my mouth. Somehow, I thought that if I didn’t scream from horror, he wouldn’t scream from the pain of being maimed. The first half was a lot of fun because the secret prowling around the house combined with very little possibility for an escape created increasing levels of tension. The picture began to fall apart, however, in the second half. While the chase scenes were exciting initially, they lost their appeal quite quickly not only because it became redundant, the plot failed to move forward. As corpses began to pile up, so did our questions. And while the lifeless bodies could be left by themselves, our questions could not. With its degree of violence, I wondered what the masked man was doing in the house and what exactly he wanted from the family. While a sentence or two offered an explanation, it wasn’t enough and it didn’t make sense. I found it amusing that the opening credits of the film, directed by Marcus Dunstan, was obviously inspired by David Fincher’s “Se7en,” from the grotesque images, quick cuts, and very unsettling music. While “Se7en” was violent, the screenplay showed that there was a point to the blood and mayhem with respect to its universe. In here, there seemed to be no point other than for us to watch a well-meaning thief struggle for his life as we winced uncomfortably in our seats. I did pull my limbs closer to my body for safety but there proved to be no comfort against the nagging questions in my brain.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a journalist for the “Millennium” magazine, had just been ordered by the courts to pay Hans-Erik Wennerström (Ulf Friberg) of an amount that would almost render him bankrupt as remuneration for libel. Meanwhile, Henrick Vanger (Christopher Plummer), one of the most successful businessmen in the country, received yet another picture of a flower from his niece’s killer. Aware of Mikael’s financial situation and public embarrassment, Henrick contacted the journalist for a job involving a bit of investigating and hopefully solving a crime that happened forty years ago. Based on the novel by Stieg Larsson, the cold detachment of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” seeped through the pores of every frame yet the screenplay by Steven Zaillian found a way for us to care about Mikael and his eventual partner in solving the mystery, the magnetic and enigmatic Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). There was something great at stake for the both of them. Henrick claimed that, by the end of the investigation, he would give Mikael hard evidence that would lead to his exoneration while Lisbeth was driven by her need to catch a man who had gotten away with sexually molesting and killing women in cold blood. As they became closer to the identity of the killer, the film’s mood felt more portentous and menacing, reflected by more intense winter storms and increasingly sparse score. I was most fascinated with the scenes dedicated to Mikael asking the Vanger family (Stellan Skarsgård, Joely Richardson, Geraldine Jame) all sorts of questions about what happened or what they thought happened to Harriet. Despite the picture not having a lot of obvious chase scenes, there was an adrenaline rush because the chase took place in our minds. We looked at the suspects and ascertained the discrepancies among the pictures provided by Henrick, what the family members had to say about the matter, and how they reacted when certain questions moved toward a more sensitive subject. Watching Mikael inch toward a conclusion was like observing a doctor touching his patient ever so carefully and finding his way to the parts that hurt. We also had a chance to see why Lisbeth was the perfect partner for Mikael. She had her share of difficulties like having to report to an unethical guardian (Yorick van Wageningen), using our heroine for sexual favors every time she needed money. Despite being declared as incompetent to live on her own by the state, Lisbeth was very smart and calculating. She was more than capable of extricating herself from a man who thought he could get away with illicit and immoral activities because he was in a position of power. With Craig’s world-weary, humiliated gaze and Mara’s unpredictable bursts of intense anger, the picture was effective as a procedural and a character-driven work. But what I admired most about “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” directed by David Fincher, was its courage in taking the liberty to slightly deviate from the original film for the sake of being a better movie. For instance, compared to “Män som hatar kvinnor,” directed by Niels Arden Oplev, the ending that this version offered provided more insight on how tough and lonely it was to be in Lisbeth’s leather jacket while luring us to wonder what would happen next.

Se7en


Se7en (1995)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Detective Lt. William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) was one week away from retirement when he was thrusted into a case that involved an obese man who seemed as though he ate himself to death. Enter Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), an ambitious man of the law who was supposed to replace Somerset. In the meantime, the two had to work together in order to catch a killer who was intent on personifying the Seven Deadly Sins. That is, turning each sin against the sinner in grotesque and often very violent ways. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and directed by David Fincher, “Se7en” was about the two detectives as well as the crimes the killer inflicted on his victims. The contrast between the two detectives went beyond their age and the way they perceived their role in law enforcement. Somerset was the patient intellectual who bothered to read between the lines in search of deeper meaning, while Mills was the mercurial brute arm who had less proclivity toward delayed gratification. As the duo got deeper into the macabre case, we came to observe their strengths and weaknesses as well as learn about their histories. Despite their differences in personality and the way they approached problems, they made a good team. And like all good teams, sometimes they made game-changing mistakes and created repercussions that they just couldn’t walk away from. By allowing us to observe Mills and Somerset as they explored the increasingly cryptic assignment, the film argued that in order for a person to understand evil, one has to be willing to, if necessary, be an agent of the thing he is fighting against in hopes of ultimately overcoming it. Yet nothing was certain and the picture offered no easy answers about motivations, revenge, or redemption. I admired the film’s cold detachment in terms of the details of the crime. I’ve always been a curious person but I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed when Fincher allowed the camera to be as close to the subject as possible. For instance, when the obese man was in the morgue coming off a post-mortem examination, we could clearly see the various discolorations on the man’s skin, every fold of fat and fibrous vein, as well as the points of incision. When such details were so precise that my nervous system couldn’t help but react so strongly, that’s how I know I’m watching a master at work. The picture could easily have been a gimmick about the cardinal sins. But notice that with each passing victim, the camera spent less time on their mutilated bodies. Increasing attention was directed to the two detectives’ varying reactions. Take Mills as an example. He was easy to crack jokes about the corpses. He didn’t do it to be mean or disrespectful. It was his own way of coping with what he just saw so that at the end of the day he would be able to go home and sleep next to his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow). “Se7en” had respect for its complex story and, more importantly, it respected us as an audience. Its willingness to stare into the ugly depths of the psyche as well as the bleak streets and underground alleys of sin made it a harrowing and rewarding experience.

Kalifornia


Kalifornia (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★

A couple, one a writer (David Duchovny) and the other a photographer (Michelle Forbes), decided to travel across country to California while visiting infamous murder sites. But since they didn’t have enough funds for gas, they decided to put up an advertisement and another couple, one a killer (Brad Pitt) and the other a girl (Juliette Lewis) unaware that her boyfriend was a murderer, answered. I was fascinated with the way the movie was shot. While it was very violent and gory, it was obvious that the picture’s goal was not to glorify such things but to look into the darkness in hoping that a monster would leer back at us. And it did. There were shots that featured the vast landscape and it allowed us to ponder about what was happening and create ideas about what might happen next. It was an intense experience because for more than half the film, Duchovny, Forbes, and Lewis weren’t aware that they’ve been spending their time with someone who they’ve talked about in person, on tape, and captured in photographs. The three obviously felt fear toward Pitt’s character but they couldn’t quite place what was wrong with him. They felt as though jumping to a conclusion was just as dangerous as not doing so the characters felt trapped despite the open spaces that surrounded them. The film constantly tried to break away from the obvious and it became an increasingly challenging experience as it went on. For instance, the material had constructed an argument that there was a big difference between visiting a place where a grizzly crime had occurred and actually being a victim of someone who didn’t feel remorse and guilt. The characters talked about crimes as if directly taken from the news and books but eventually, once they’ve experienced it first-hand, they realized that no amount of explanation in books could even begin to describe the harrowing experience. Their dark adventure was intensified by Duchovny’s narration (à la “The X-Files” delivery of lines), asking questions like what was the difference between a regular person compared to a killer, or even if there is a difference. Do regular people have an extra something or are they missing something in comparison to someone who kills? “Kalifornia,” directed by Dominic Sena, was an effective thriller not only because it had intelligent characters who knew how to survive but also because the director had control of his material and he always worked toward a goal. It may not be for everyone because it sometimes didn’t offer easy answers. But for those who enjoyed crime thrillers such as David Fincher’s “Se7en” (a more commercial work in comparison to “Kalifornia”) should be able to enjoy this chilling road trip. Along with movies like John Dahl’s “Joy Ride,” this is the kind of film I think about when I stop at gas stations during a long drive.