Director David Fincher (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

The career of David Fincher – not so black and white?

David Fincher’s eleventh film is his most personal and revealing yet

Artillery Row

Mank, David Fincher’s new film – his eleventh – arrived with appropriate heraldry on Netflix last weekend. As Christopher Silvester wrote in the magazine recently, it is little short of a masterpiece, managing to give credit both to Orson Welles’ mighty Citizen Kane and its protagonist screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s own unjustly overlooked career.

As with most of Fincher’s work, it is a pleasure to watch, thanks in large part to the extraordinary black-and-white cinematography from Erik Messerscmidt: the look of the film simultaneously pays homage to Gregg Toland’s extraordinary deep focus photography of Kane, but also draws on Fincher’s own fascination with the medium, as can be seen in his music videos for his former muse Madonna and, more recently, Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake. But the even greater delights come from altogether unexpected areas.

Since he began his career with the almost wholly unsuccessful Alien 3 in 1992 (a film he recently dismissed, pithily, as “a library title for a multinational, vertically integrated media conglomerate”), Fincher has established himself as one of the few cult auteurs whose films are both critically adored and which – sometimes, at least – end up making a large amount of money.

He first built his reputation with his trendsetting work in music videos and advertising, which led to the offer from Fox to make a film in the Alien series: a wholly unhappy experience for him. The eventual picture, a glum, grim exercise in subverting everything that audiences had enjoyed about the previous two, was not a success, despite a decent box office haul, and it might have been expected that Fincher, like so many directors before him, might have returned, chastened, to the field in which he made his name.

Instead, three years later, he rebounded with Se7en, one of the darkest, most intelligent and most horrifying serial killers ever made. Fincher, working from a fine script by Andrew Kevin Walker, took the traditions of the genre – an old cop on the verge of retirement; his hot-headed and naïve young partner; a dastardly serial killer who is murdering his victims according to an ornate and fiendish pattern – and subverted them with both dark wit and humanity.

Fincher quickly transformed into a success story, but with the inevitable label that he was ‘the dark guy’

It features all of the expected close-call action set-pieces and horrifying discoveries of desecrated corpses, but leavens them with an unexpected literary sensibility that alludes both to Milton and Hemingway in its dour evocation of a grim anonymous metropolis, where it always rains and where the never-named serial killer (he sardonically refers to himself as “John Doe”, slang for an unknown person), who may have slithered out of one of the filthy drains, comes to represent the darkest aspects of humanity. Even as the film builds to its famously grim ending, one much-parodied and imitated since, it offers a romanticism simultaneously tender and horrified, in which the small green shoot of hope offered by a pregnancy is brutally snuffed out.

Fincher found himself transformed from a Hollywood outcast into a success story in the space of a few years, but with the inevitable label that he was “the dark guy”. His next film The Game, a postmodern spin on A Christmas Carol, continued this reputation, thanks to the apparent glee with which it put Michael Douglas’s misanthropic investment banker through numerous torments and challenges. He then made Fight Club, an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s cult novel. It attracted enormous controversy on its release at the end of 1999 for its violence, its subversion of its star Brad Pitt’s machismo and its jaw-droppingly tasteless black humour: one plot strand concerns the liposuctioned fat of wealthy women being sold back to them as expensive soap.

It deeply offended the influential film critics Roger Ebert (“the most frankly and cheerfully fascist big-star movie since Death Wish”) and Alexander Walker (“an inadmissible assault on personal decency, and on society itself”). And, despite being a box office disappointment, it became a cult picture, especially for angry young men frustrated by their perceived lack of success or recognition from the wider world: inevitably, it has become a particular favourite with the “incel” movement.

The surprising thing about the film when it is rewatched now, away from the sturm und drang of its release, is that large sections of it play out as a twisted but still highly recognisable romantic comedy. The musician Meat Loaf, who has a role within it, described it upon release as being a contemporary version of The Graduate, and although his comment was not taken especially seriously, it is now entirely clear that Fincher’s intention was to take a Woody Allen-cum-Mike Nichols template and subvert it for his own purposes.

As with all of Fincher’s work, Mank is the definition of an acquired taste

The central dynamic between Edward Norton’s anonymous, vaguely Woody Allen-esque “narrator” and Helena Bonham Carter’s jaded, cynical Marla Singer crackles with witty dialogue and sexual tension, and only the incursion of the narrator’s imaginary alpha male alter ego Tyler Durden threatens the idyll. Yet the rapid-fire badinage between the characters is reminiscent of nothing so much as old-school Thirties Hollywood films, and its resolution, bleak and violent though it undoubtedly is, is not so very far away from the classic traditions of screwball comedy. That said, the final shot, as two characters stand holding hands as skyscrapers come crashing down in front of them, would never be included in any film made subsequently, so redolent is it now of 9/11.

This tension between the films that David Fincher is expected to make – bleak, violent serial killer thrillers – and the ones that he appears to want to direct – twisted but hugely enjoyable romantic comedies – has come to define the rest of his career. Certainly, films of his such as the Seventies police procedural Zodiac, although by no means devoid of humour thanks to Robert Downey Jr’s wisecracking journalist, cannot be described as such. However, most of the others, including his Facebook drama The Social Network, his Swedish noir The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and his uproariously funny disappearance thriller Gone Girl are all imbued with a twisted, almost punk sensibility that cannot obscure the tender romanticism at their heart.

The Social Network suggests that Mark Zuckerberg’s monomaniacal desire to control people’s lives stemmed from his being rejected by his girlfriend, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo hinges on a strange, perverse romance between its misfit protagonists and Gone Girl skilfully transforms itself from a missing-person thriller into a laugh-a-minute black comedy about modern marriage, complete with punchlines involving domestic violence.

As with all of Fincher’s work, it is challenging and surprising, and is the definition of an acquired taste. Yet when he made a more conventionally romantic drama in the shape of the Scott Fitzgerald adaptation The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it was technically magnificent and featured fine performances from its stars Brad Pitt (Fincher’s most significant acting collaborator) and Cate Blanchett, but felt curiously safe and unchallenging, with most of the attention going on its special effects-led depiction of a man being born old and ageing backwards throughout his life.

Tellingly, the scene that summons up Fincher’s trademark touch of perversity is a final meeting between Pitt and Blanchett, in which he has become a young man and she is a woman in late middle age; of course, they have sex, in a scene charged with both eroticism and drama, but the taboo being challenged is one in which we seldom see romances between older women and younger men, while the other way round is a mainstay of popular escapist filmmaking. As, arguably, it remains in life.

Mank may be the latest in a long line of passion projects from major directors that Netflix have funded

It is one of these relationships, between the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, B-list actress Marion Davies, that lies at the heart of Mank. The film suggests that Mankiewicz was a good friend of Davies’, and a quasi-court jester of Hearst’s, and that, far from writing the screenplay of Citizen Kane as an attack on them both, he did so with a mixture of fondness and knowing invention, only for Orson Welles to rewrite the script in a more explicitly condemnatory fashion. Yet one of the chief joys of Fincher’s film is that it gives both Mankiewicz and Davies – beautifully played by Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfriend – real human dimensions in their friendship, which comes to be another of Fincher’s great, swooning exercises in romanticism, diversified by some brilliantly crackling rat-a-tat-tat dialogue.

This writing comes courtesy of Fincher’s late father Jack, who wrote the screenplay for Mank decades ago, and it has been brought to fruition by his son in an act of filial piety. One might suggest that there are Freudian overtones in the way in which, just as Mankiewicz defines his career by its relation to his “father” and financier Hearst, Fincher has been building up to this most personal and revealing of films.

Interestingly, the area that it does not suggest that there were particular father-son conflicts was between Mankiewicz and Welles, who is portrayed here as an arrogant but talented boy wonder. His first appearance, appearing by Mank’s hospital bed out-of-focus in a billowing black cape, has clear visual parallels with the presentation of John Doe in Se7en, who is reflected in a puddle of water at the end of a foot chase. Doe chooses to spare his pursuer so that he might suffer greater torments, and so Welles’s apparent offer of a lifeline to Mankiewicz’s career would in fact lead to both an Oscar, and his doom, a process that is fascinatingly realised in what must be the front-runner for its own Oscar recognition next year.

Fincher remains one of the few Hollywood A-list directors who does not write his own scripts, working with a range of suitably simpatico collaborators (and his late father) instead, but his macabre yet romantic sensibility illuminates all of the pictures that he makes. Mank may be the latest in a long line of passion projects from major directors that Netflix have funded, eschewing all creative control in exchange for the right to stream the films on their platform. Like Roma, The Irishman and others, it offers the quintessence of the filmmaker as a result.

One might start watching it expecting violence and black comedy, but one ends it, like so many of Fincher’s other films, in awed wonder at the extraordinary talent of a man who, if he had been born half a century before, could easily have found himself in the same position as Welles, a boy genius wunderkind embroiled in a perpetually difficult relationship with his paymasters.

It is just as well for cinema – and perhaps a reflection of a more enlightened and less censorious age – that Fincher is allowed to smuggle his highly personal themes into his work. And, all the while, we can muse that this director of such bleak, violent films might be a big-hearted softie, after all.

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