How Do You Pin Down An Auteur As Evasive As David Fincher?
12:43 PM EST on November 26, 2021
There’s a scene in the first half of Se7en where retiring Detective Lieutenant Somerset (Morgan Freeman) has dinner with his new partner David Mills (Brad Pitt) and Mills’s wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow). The drab anywhere city that Se7en takes place in—a little bit of New York, a little bit of L.A.—presses into the tiny apartment where the trio meet, a passing train rattling the furniture, paint peeling off the walls, the smallness of the place almost claustrophobic. But in a movie known for its oppressive atmosphere and grisly violence, most of which takes place offscreen, it’s this scene that’s perhaps the most hopeful. An awkward first encounter gives way to weary camaraderie and director David Fincher gilds the scene with Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” playing softly in the background.
Often, Fincher’s diegetic and non-diegetic musical choices ring out as bright, unexpected beacons of warm recognition in otherwise harrowing narratives. “I Want To Take You Higher,” by Sly & The Family Stone in Zodiac, “Twist & Shout,” by The Beatles in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, “Ball & Biscuit,” by the White Stripes in The Social Network. These cues instill an odd sense of regret because they point to a larger world where, say, people aren’t worried about serial killers or aging backwards while falling in love during World War II. Taken on its own, the apartment dinner scene from Se7en functions as a drama of new connections, three people brought together by occupation. As Adam Nayman observes in his sharp, vital new book, David Fincher: Mind Games, Somerset and Mills’s “warring viewpoints ultimately converge, however perversely, in the work and words of John Doe …” whose world is “tailor-made” for him. The brief respite before the film continues on its unrelenting descent is orchestrated as the most cutting of "What ifs."
Fincher is the kind of filmmaker who enjoys household name-recognition and industry-wide respect, but rarely gets written about in forms longer than a magazine profile. Nayman’s book would stand out for that reason alone, but the film critic and professor, who’s also written about the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson, takes Fincher’s filmography and pre-film career as a music video director into the kind of beautifully written, incisive, and serious-minded account that any artist would be lucky to receive.
Mind Games is broken up into sections, grouping films like Alien 3 and Panic Room into thematic categories, in this case, “Maximum Security.” Full-color photographs and original illustrations punctuate the book, which is bookended with interviews from Fincher collaborators. Rather than endeavor to follow the chronological trajectory of Fincher’s career, Nayman arranges the director’s work according to aesthetic and dramatic throughlines present in both the stories and backgrounds of his films. In the introduction, Nayman writes, “For those of us consistently fascinated by his films, figuring out how David Fincher does the things he does is actually the easy part. What’s more difficult—and maddening, and addictive, and exhilarating—is trying to make the case for what it all means, if anything.”
That last qualification runs throughout Mind Games. Nayman wrestles with the artifice and couched sincerity of a director who is more than happy to weaponize his natural charm and sense of humor to act as if he’s not too attached to the movies he directs. That these movies and TV shows are almost always about obsessives, who are visually enshrined in the kind of cinematographic sharpness and speed that comes with doomscrolling at full brightness, betrays Fincher’s own exacting philosophy. Nayman sidesteps the easy writing pitfalls about Fincher (lingering on his notorious, laborious directorial methods or his difficult shooting style) by drawing attention to the director’s developing aesthetic, commercials interests, and many repeat collaborators, whose agency tends to be supplanted by the myth of Fincher’s ego, a myth that Nayman doesn’t so much deconstruct as reframe in the context of style.
“The common denominator between many of Fincher’s surrogates is a desire for attention, which leads them to either act out or prosthelytize, often in public forums and through elaborately designed systems,” Nayman writes in his section on The Social Network. Nayman extends this passage as a description of the director himself, a supposition that carries weight to varying degrees as Mind Games goes on. From the perspective of a curious admirer like Nayman, it can seem like the key to Fincher’s oeuvre lies in coded images and repeat narratives, artistic impetuses that are either directly corroborated by or negatively implied by the director’s own words. For an obsessive, like me, you take Fincher’s on-the-record statements with a wink and a smile. In his commentary for Panic Room, Fincher talks about the way critics prodded him to supply his capital-I intention for the film. “I don’t know, man. I was trying to say that two chicks got caught in a closet and three guys tried to get in.’”
Nayman is reticent to lean too heavily on what Fincher says. Of course, the trick, which is of the annoying and circuitous variety that fans sacrifice precious chunks of their life to, is knowing when and when not to believe what the source says, about himself and about his work. Is he a sentimentalist? No. Until he is. Is he an anarchist subverting social mores? Yes. And no. Fincher is more akin to a funny friend who, sensing the opportunity, tells the perfectly timed inappropriate joke.
What Nayman lacks, which is crucial to his project’s depth and acuity, is a fanboy’s love for his subject. This may prove irritating for some of the diehards, but then again, love comes with tough revelations. Where Nayman’s straining to understand and even appreciate his subject falters is where anyone falters when assessing a person or their work: How do you delineate between your subjective opinion and a more researched, academic distance? For the Fincher analyst, this presents an interesting quandary. How best to assess a body of work, not with objectivity, but with direct evidence? For the Fincher fan, those same direct sources are less insights than affirmations of what they already suspected, whether that be brilliance, sophistication, prowess, etc.
Fincher is one of my favorite filmmakers for what his films mean to me, a confession of sentiment that seems at odds with a filmmaker whose not-uncultivated reputation hangs on the coldness or nihilism or self-satisfaction of his work. Nayman doesn’t have the same dogged appreciation, which is why he’s the perfect writer to tackle the material. What he may miss or at least doubt about his subject’s sincerity or intentions, what he may dismiss or laugh at, is made up for with curiosity and desire to truly understand Fincher, something any real fan would welcome. Writing about Fincher is a trap, of course. Which is why it needs to be done.
Mind Games comes out at a time when Fincher finds himself in the midst of something of a career recalculation. Both House of Cards and Mindhunter, Netflix original series he helped develop and direct, have been, respectively, finished early due to high-profile sexual abuse allegations against star Kevin Spacey, and put on indefinite hold while Fincher pursues other projects. Following the uneven reception of one of those projects, Mank, from a script by Fincher’s late father that Nayman describes as “tender, ambitious, and exasperating,” Fincher is set to direct what some of his more myopic fans hope will be a “return to form”: an adaptation of the French graphic novel The Killer, about a mysterious assassin, played by Michael Fassbender. His most recent project is a series of video essays called Voir by Sasha Stone, Walter Chaw, Drew McWeeny, Tony Zhou, and Taylor Ramos premiering on Netflix in December that Fincher has executive-produced.
An uncharitable view of Fincher’s trajectory over the last 10 years is that he has a track record of working with perpetrators of abuse or industry bullying whose records have been legally exculpated or are publicly exposed only after he’s worked with them. Such personal analysis is left out of Nayman’s book, not so much an oversight as a specificity of focus; Nayman didn’t write the book to speculate about Fincher’s professional relationships. What this proves, more than anything, is that Fincher is an artist whose work and reputation deserve many types of scrutiny. Mind Games makes the case that to take someone seriously is to sit with and rethink what their work means, in the world and to you. More people like Nayman should take up that mantle.