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Friday, January 10, 2014

Director Retrospectives- David Fincher Part 2

This is part two of a three part retrospective of David Fincher. Future instalments with discuss Fight Club,The Game, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the first two episodes of House of Cards.

Part Two- Setting and Place- Panic Room, Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Panic Room (2002) - In slasher flicks like Scream (1996), break-ins are single scenes. Heist flicks like The Bank Job (2008) or The Score (2001) spend most of the films planning out the break-ins, and then only a scene or two actually carrying them out. So the fact that aside from the very beginning, Panic Room is just really one long break-in scene always made the film seem like a silly waste of time. I mean, it gives the whole plot away right in the title. A couple of thieves arrive and tear up the place, the family hides, problems occur. Hurray.

The coincidence of everything just-so-happening to be available at the exact right time: the happenstance of the break-in coinciding with the idea that the house just so happens to contain a panic room, this seems too much to handle.

Yet all the mighty forces align and provide the viewer with an experience that is actually quite satisfying. Although not an overly complicated plot, the script is very well written and includes explanations for exactly why these happenings occur as they do.

For skeptic viewers like me, who usually find unexplainable exceptional coincidences a deal breakers, David Keopp’s logical, explanatory script (Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible) provides answers, and an excellent foundation for David Fincher to build his dark mess. (IMDB says Keopp got 4 million bucks for the script, so….).

Seemingly, this film takes the primal fear of invasion, bad people coming into our homes in the night and doing bad things to us. But rather than exploit the concept a has been beaten to death, Panic Room does not rely on the traditional fear of invasion. It adds dimension, reason, even a kind of logic explaining how this whole event could have turned out right for everyone, if only it could have unfolded just a single day earlier.

It is in considering the film’s simplicity that the profound difficulty of this film’s production is most realized. The decision for the director and crew to call “that’s a wrap” must have been murky one.

Unlike any of Fincher’s other films, Panic Room is shot entirely on only one set, in linear time, and deals with only with a single event. It is minimal in its approach, like a play. It is essentially all based on the interaction of the actors stage together, almost.

Forest Whitacker, Jodie Foster and even Dwight Yoakam all crank out great performances, but Fincher’s dark, perfectly influential shots, using unusual angles, intercoms and video cameras, small vs. open spaces, and of course, darkness and rain are what make this cinema, and not theater. Aligning open frames with great musical peaks, the score by Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings) intensifies the single track plot of Panic Room, pushing it along as a series of arcs, suspensefully running up and down, each arc increasing in intensity, until the film hits the peak, and even though we knew all along what was coming, we are still very satisfied with when it finally does.


Zodiac (2007)Now that the criminal mastermind flick has become a set type, widely overdone, this film tends to get easily shrugged off as yet another film about an ultra-intelligent serial killer who is always one step ahead of the cops, yes just like Seven. Still though, this film is quite different. Zodiac has nowhere near as much internal darkness bursting from its seams. 

But Zodiac is dark, just not Seven dark. Even though Zodiac is still a murder-thriller, it’s tone compared to Seven, is a like a lovely ray of sunshine. Being that this storyline is all loosely based on actual events, enacting the film out in the time period during which it occurred, the late 60’s-early 70’s gives the film a freshness, a nostalgia that seems to come with those decades.

The plot: In an age before mail bombs and anthrax scares, a killer toys with his pursuers by leaving complex clues just above their tracker’s radars, just out of reach of their capabilities, the chase then becomes perpetual, the madness wide spread- reporters, cops, victim’s families, all exposed to the madness. Society engulfing.  

The lighting, the darkness, the shadows, the string dissonance, and the rain of course: all hugely important to Fincher’s work, perhaps his most important set of tricks, perhaps they could even be called Finchinian, or would it be Ficheresque? They pop up in all this films.

In the real tense bits we get close, claustrophobic shots, bare-bones dialogue, tense body
language, the potential victim’s fear seeping almost literally thought the screen, then BAM! Scene complete. No sentimentality.

None of Fincher’s tactics in creating suspense come across as clichés. These are textbook lessons in how to frame a successful suspense scene. In a thriller the actor is a part of the puzzle. Like a part of complex musical arrangement, all the players need to play their parts perfectly.

In thrillers the character is thrown into an extreme situation, an abyss created by the filmmaker, and Zodiac, unlike Panic Room, is a bottomless abyss. Great performances are made by the actor’s that find the rawest, ravenous ways to claw their ways out, even if the character fails.

During Zodiac, Jake Gyllehaal was still coming up in the ranks. He had not fully moved on to the badass action hero roles he plays today and in his underling position in the film, as a cartoonist constantly getting in the way of the “real” reporters, he becomes an interesting underdog of a main character, even though he’s not supposed to be the main attraction. A pleasure to watch, we know, and he knows, he is in a subservient role and he never breaks out of it .

Thrillers are the king of film as the symphony is king of music. Great symphonies are difficult to execute. So many elements, so many moving parts, everything must align perfectly, so when that moment of suspense is created, in both thriller and symphony, whether scene of movement, we stand in awe.  

Zodiac has those moments. 


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)- Thanks to David Fincher, the world now has Rooney Mara to admire (and stare at). She plays the Goth misfit Lisbeth in this film, her first lead role, and she’s actually pretty good. She does revenge particularly well. A fierce character, while not dominating every scene, Rooney dominates the film. She is the one we think a hour later.
I will not try and compare her performance with Noomi Repace's, whom I also love to watch. Both do Lisbeth their 
own way.

When Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) gets into some political hot water and needs to get out of Stockholm, he takes a job as an investigator in the Swedish countryside trying to solve the mystery of a disappeared girl, but there are people that do not want him to to find the answers. Eventually he teams up with Lisbeth and they work on the case together.

In the first part of the film, the intersecting story lines between the two main characters are done with skill. Many scenes are not action or dialogue based (they are just visual), yet all they all add to the story. The decision to film this version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in Sweden, as opposed to swapping it out for some American city, was a well made one. 

Since so much of the story is told in images, kudos goes to the editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall. Both are long time collaborators of Fincher, and they’ve both won multiple Oscars, including one for this film. I get the suspicion that they worked extra overtime on this movie; there are just tons and tons of scenes, a complete 180 from the style of Panic Room

The chemistry between Rooney and Craig really builds throughout the film as the two work great together. The irregularity of the pairing makes it much more interesting and intriguing to follow than most typical, on-screen romances.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not the most depressing of all Fincher productions, but it’s still pretty low down there, and I mean this in the best way possible. It’s either always raining or cold outside while sometimes this envorinment is contrasted against interior scenes that are pristine, white, clean. Tension. Clean rooms don't seem to apear often in Fincher films, and as expected there are many others that are dark and dirty. 

The film ends in a reasonably satisfying way leaving us hanging, waiting for the sequel. 


ErrataI could have gone without the final Stockholm scene when Lisbeth is riding her motorbike through the streets as it snows. A similar situation occurred in The Wolverine (2013) where Logan rode a motorbike through the mountains in Japanese winter. These situations would never occur. Motorbikes and snow are never a very convincing combination (for me anyway).