Fincher’s best film also feels the most like a window into his mind, an obsessive movie about obsessives. Opening with a series of murders by the Zodiac killer, who haunted the San Francisco Bay Area in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Fincher vividly captures the uneasy tenor of a city that was held captive by a psychopath’s cryptic threats and deadly actions. But that’s only the beginning of a case that would go cold for everyone but the men who devote every spare minute of their lives to it. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo in performances of steady deterioration, they follow every bread crumb through dead-ends and red herrings, so transfixed by the process that they don’t realize the extent to which it’s ruined them. It’s these men — the evidence collectors, the archive trollers, the puzzle solvers — that are aligned most closely with Fincher, keeping up their pursuit for the Zodiac as much to scratch an intellectual itch as to find justice for his victims. In fact, the film itself is a gripping reinvestigation of sorts, with Fincher validating and dismissing theories on the near-unsolvable case, and, as ever, fussing over every detail that goes into the hunt.
After the false start of Alien 3, Fincher set the table for his entire career with his next project, a serial-killer thriller that’s so unrelentingly grim and unsettling that it’s a small miracle mainstream audiences went along with it. The premise is pure hokum, with two detectives following the trial of a serial murderer inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins, but Fincher takes it seriously enough to develop deeper themes about sin and evil and whether the world itself can be redeemed. Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt play off each other nicely as a measured, seen-it-all detective and his new brash, emotional young partner, and Gwyneth Paltrow is affecting as Pitt’s lonely wife, who reluctantly supports his transfer to a more dangerous beat. The final “sin” is a gut punch that Fincher times out for maximum impact, and the conclusion he reaches is bleak and uncompromising while simultaneously full of genuine feeling for the lonely, dedicated humans beating back the darkness.
3. The Social Network
In the eight years since The Social Network was released, the diminished public image of Silicon Valley, epitomized by the fake news and data breaches of Facebook in particular, has only further validated Fincher’s portrait of founder Mark Zuckerberg as a bloodless creature of ambition. Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin understand Facebook as coded by Zuckerberg’s DNA, in essence the social network of a sociopath — wholly reflective of his ambition, arrogance, neediness, and petty disregard for other people. Sorkin’s hypercaffeinated voice tends to overwhelm less assertive filmmakers, but his dialogue has never found a more suitable vessel than Zuckerberg, and Fincher counterbalances all the talkiness with moments of pure cinema. The unsettling ambience of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s Oscar-winning score sets the surprisingly portentous tone, and Jesse Eisenberg’s performance is blessedly free of ingratiation — he doesn’t care if the audience likes him, because Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to care, either. The sequence where Zuckerberg slaps together Facemash in a fit of juvenile brilliance from his Harvard dormitory is a thrilling synthesis of campus life and one man’s half-inspired/half-pathetic effort to bottle it in pixels. The Social Network respects his vision and hustle, but keenly recognizes the flaws that are now readily apparent.
4. Gone Girl
After The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it fell to Fincher once again to adapt the literary phenomenon of the moment, in this case Gillian Flynn’s delectably batshit thriller about a woman’s disappearance and the cracks it reveals in her marriage. This is Fincher’s idea of a love story, much more so than gauzy convention of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and within this public game of cat and mouse between husband (Ben Affleck) and wife (Rosamund Pike), the film finds a perverse sort of equilibrium. It helps, too, that Fincher is a master of the twist: From page to screen, the big revelations from Flynn’s book could have easily sunk into “oh, come on now” territory, but Fincher plants them elegantly within the flow of the narrative, which weaves through different time periods to tell the complete story of a wounded relationship. He squares his particular sensibility with the lurid social commentary of Flynn’s book, carving out a pop provocation that entered the culture like a shiv.
5. Fight Club
Adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s short novel about young men finding an outlet for their inchoate anger and frustration, Fight Club will be a rich text for cultural anthropologists of the future, who might wonder why privileged white guys were feeling so aggrieved at the turn of the millennium (and beyond). The film has become an inadvertent touchstone for disaffected Gen-Xers, but it’s also remarkably perceptive about what happens when bruised masculinity manifests itself in violent rebellion. The movie’s first half is like a two-fisted Office Space, perfectly articulating the soul-withering drudgery of a white-collar office drone who longs to break free of his ready-to-assemble, Ikea-box lifestyle. The anarchy that breaks out in the second is harder to track, but Fincher remains plugged in to the potent fantasy of razing the system and hoping something new will rise from the ashes.